George Kendall: One Of Few Lawyers Fighting For Black Freedom

George Kendall is a lawyer who has spent more than 25 years defending indigent death row prisoners.

Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, popularly know as the Angola Three, are former inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or the Angola Prison. Up until Woodfox’ release in February 2016, he was the longest standing solitary confinement prisoner in the United States. He had spent 43 years locked up in an isolation cell. His cell was a 6ft by 9ft concrete box, he had no human contact and even when he was allowed outside his cell for an hour each day, he was kept in chains. Albert Woodfox had to endure all this dehumanizing treatment for a crime he didn’t commit. A former Black Panther activist along with his two friends, Woodfox was convicted of the murder of a prison guard by name Brent Miller.

George Kendall is the lawyer who spent years fighting to get him out of isolation. He was able to secure freedom for Albert Woodfox, and in February of this year, Woodfox walked out of prison a free man. We were delighted when George Kendall agreed to talk to us to acquaint us with some facts surrounding the case, what led him to take it up and why, after so many years, the justice system in America continues to be plagued with so many injustices and wrongful convictions.
First, I’d like us to discuss the case of Albert Woodfox. How did you meet him and what made you decide to become his representative?
George Kendall
I first met Albert in 2004. I was asked by a colleague in Louisiana to look at his civil rights case, the case of solitary confinement that had been pending for five years that he had brought with his great friends Herman Wallace and Robert King. It was hard for me to believe that people had been held anywhere in the world for more than three decades in solitary confinement. And so we looked at the case, we went and met the guys and we took the case, and we worked that case for twelve years until it was concluded earlier this year.
Do you belong to an association of pro bono lawyers? How did you get help on Albert’s case?
George Kendall
Well, when I was asked to look at his case, I was working at Holland & Knight. It had a pro bono working group that was called the Community Services Team, and the lawyers in the group, all we did was pro bono work. And so we were able to take this case and devote a fair amount of time to it, which it required, because it was a big case and it took a lot of time and a lot of work. I was asked to set up a program at my current firm, Squire Patton Boggs, in the summer of 2009, and we brought his case and some other cases over here and we’ve worked them ever since. So I’m able to focus my practice on what we say are difficult, challenging pro bono cases that are going to take a while to resolve.
Why did it take so many years, 10 years to be precise, to prove his innocence and get him out of jail?
George Kendall
Well, when we got into his case, we were not representing him on his criminal case. We did not come into that case until 2010. His case was pending in federal habeas corpus proceedings and there had to be a large hearing on the issue of racial discrimination in the grand jury. Just the preparation for that hearing took almost two years and a lot of work from three lawyers here and some others. And so it’s just that issues were complicated and it took a while.
Did he get a pardon or anything from the state after 45 years in prison?
George Kendall
With regard to his criminal case, we got his conviction overturned in February of 2013, and then the state appealed that to the first charge which is a very, very conservative court. But a 3-judge panel of that court in November of 2014 granted a release. And it was at that time when the state of Louisiana just announced, “We’re going to try him again.” And so what happened – and this is very unusual in a case like this – is that they agreed to settle the case where Albert will plead what’s called nolo contendere, meaning he didn’t admit guilt, because he had always said he’s innocent and he simply accepted the imposition of guilt on two lesser offenses. He was discharged later that day. That was in February of this year.
Another thing is, I’ve got to know that not so many lawyers are interested in working on cases similar to Albert’s. Why’s it like that? What hidden problems or nuances arise in such cases?
George Kendall
A lot of lawyers work in firms, and the point of the firm is to make a decent living. And so much of your effort is expected to go to clients who can pay the bills. When you’re talking about pro bono clients, those are clients who can’t pay the bills. So one reason why I’m at a large law firm – we have like 1,700 lawyers in this firm from all over the world – is that the firm can support me to take on these cases and do them properly. But there are a lot of lawyers who are under a lot of pressure to bring in money, and there are a lot of lawyers who work in smaller firms where there just isn’t the same tradition that you’re supposed to devote a certain amount of time every year, to helping people who can’t afford to hire you.
This makes me want to ask how you resolve the issue of compensation. We understand that this man was kept in solitary confinement for so many years and most likely he didn’t have the funds to pay a lawyer. How do lawyers get compensation with regards to cases like this?
George Kendall
With cases like this what happens is, if you win the case, then there are statutes in the United States that allow you to then move for attorney’s fees. You can ask the court to order the other side to pay you attorney’s fees. But you only get those if you are the prevailing party, so you have to win. And so there are a lot of lawyers who won’t take cases like that because it’s too risky, you can spend two, three, four years, a lot of time and a lot of money on a case and lose and then you don’t get a thing. So that’s one of the main impediments. There are a lot of people in prison and other institutions in the United States that need legal representation but they can’t get it because the lawyer is going to have to come in and spend some of his or her own money to make the case winnable, and then there’s never any guarantee that they’ll win.
Thanks for clarifying that up for us. With such a huge experience in legal practice, I think you know of cases like that of the MOVE 9, Mumia Abu Jamal, and many other political prisoners in the United States? Why do you think their cases are so difficult and there always has to be a struggle? Let’s take the MOVE 9 for example, they were sentenced for killing one police officer with one shot. That means that about eight of them are innocent in this case, and they were not planning to kill anybody anyway. Regardless, it was impossible for them to prove their innocence. Why is it like this?
George Kendall
The laws in the last 25 years have been changed to make it become – once you are convicted of a crime – much harder to either get that conviction overturned or to show that you are not guilty of that crime. We became a very punitive country, we have very harsh sentencing when compared to most of the rest of the world. The prosecution and the states, they have a lot of arguments they can raise to preserve convictions once they get them that have nothing to do with whether you got a fair trial or not. And so we’ve made the process one that really makes it much harder to prevail on appeal than it should be.
What do you think can be done about this situation?
George Kendall
Well, while we’ve made the system very punitive, we’ve also made it way overly complicated. And there’s a growing number of people who think we can simplify the review process or we can make it go much quicker, and people who were unfairly tried, they would be awarded new trials and people who got their trials, their appeals won’t take 10-15 years, they can move more quickly. Not everyone agrees with reforming things that way but that’s what ought to happen, we simplify the process. Because you know, there are a lot of prisoners who are representing themselves after their first appeal – there’s a right to a lawyer for that – and if they’ve been convicted of a crime, they have to represent themselves, and the system is way too complicated now for most prisoners to do that effectively.
Let’s talk about Jerome Skee Smith’s case. When he was fifteen, he was a boy who was quite notorious in the neighborhood and on the particular day when a popular shop owner in the community was murdered in 1985, Jerome had a strong alibi that showed that he was at a youth study center where he was supposed to undergo some psychological tests with his mum at the time of the crime. However, somehow, they were able to debunk this assertion, though it meant that it was impossible for him to be at the crime scene at the time of the crime. Even with faulty witness’ description of the criminal, he was still found guilty. He’s been in jail for 31 years, he was fifteen when he was jailed, and he has kept his stance that he’s innocent all this while. He has a juvenile resentencing hearing coming up on October 14. I believe you’ve worked on several cases in which the 8th amendment was violated and there are many other cases like this all over the country. What do you think is wrong with our justice system?
George Kendall
Well, there’s a lot wrong. But one of the main things is that the lawyers who are appointed and represent a lot of people charged with crime have way too many cases. There are some that are very good lawyers but they’re way overwhelmed. Too many cases, and they don’t have enough help, they don’t have enough investigators, they don’t have other resources that you need to really work very hard and comprehensively with these cases before there’s a pre- or a trial. And so a lot of the important work and in fact, some of the work that this guy is doing now, all that should’ve been done 31 years ago, right? And all this time it’s not been done. In Louisiana, there’s an indigent defense system that provides lawyers to indigent people who can’t afford lawyers, and the funding has been cut. It’s a real crisis, it’s a crisis in many states but Louisiana is in a horrible crisis now with its indigent defense system.
We’ve noticed that when a court hears cases with the police for example, with police brutality, or rich and famous people when they get tried, every detail is taken into consideration and much care is taken in their conviction or in acquitting them. Why is it that when it comes to cases like Jerome’s, a poor Black boy who of course, is disposable, things happen very fast and they are convicted more quickly?
George Kendall
Well, I think you know as well as I do that oftentimes, the cases that get the most attention are ones where the prosecutor and the judge and the police know that there are a lot of people watching what’s going on. So with more high profile cases, they have to really sort of do things the way they’re supposed to be done. But you could walk down to any local court within 20-30 miles of where you are and there are going to be very few people sitting in the courtrooms watching, oftentimes in very serious events, people getting their liberty taken away twenty, thirty, sixty years of their life. And we don’t often pay enough attention as to what happens in the courts the way we ought to. 

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