Mercy at the End of a Life

Post Date: October 3, 2013

Elderly Prisoner(New York Times, Editorial) — On Tuesday, a federal judge in Louisiana ordered the immediate release of Herman Wallace, a 71-year-old man who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement conditions for the murder of a prison guard. Mr. Wallace, who maintains his innocence, was wheeled out on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital because he is dying of advanced liver cancer. Prosecutors fought his release up to the moment of his departure. 

The case against Mr. Wallace has been doubtful from the start, and the judge ruled that one error — the systematic exclusion of women from his grand jury — was so serious it required a new trial. Given the glacial pace of justice in Louisiana, it is highly unlikely he will live to see it.

When Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced in August a sweeping set of fixes to our “broken” criminal justice system, most observers overlooked his call to expand “compassionate release” for elderly or sick federal inmates who pose no public threat. That new policy does not affect state prisoners like Mr. Wallace, but its logic certainly applies in his case, and it was one of the reasons the judge ordered his release.  Read more