Last Updated Feb 19, 2016 4:26 PM EST
NEW ORLEANS -- The last inmate of a group known as the "Angola Three" has pleaded no contest to manslaughter and a lesser offense in the 1972 death of a prison guard and is expected to be released Friday after more than four decades in prison.
Albert Woodfox and two other men became known as the "Angola Three" for their decades-long stays in isolation at the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola and other prisons. Officials said they were kept in solitary because their Black Panther Party activism would otherwise rile up inmates at the maximum-security prison farm in Angola.
Woodfox consistently maintained his innocence in the killing of guard Brent Miller. He was being held at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, awaiting a third trial in Miller's death after earlier convictions were thrown out by federal courts for reasons including racial bias in selecting a grand jury foreman.
Woodfox was serving time for armed robbery and assault when he was convicted in Miller's killing. Inmates identified him as the one who grabbed the guard from behind while others stabbed Miller with a lawnmower blade and a hand-sharpened prison knife.
The star witness, a serial rapist who left death row and was pardoned by the Louisiana governor after his testimony, died before the second trial. Woodfox was placed in solitary immediately after Miller's body was found in an empty prison dormitory, and then was ordered kept on "extended lockdown" every 90 days for decades.
In February 2015, a grand jury indicted Woodfox a third time. He was moved from Angola to the West Feliciana Parish Jail to await another trial. He pleaded no contest in a plea deal that was a condition of his release, according to CBS affiliate WAFB.
Woodfox, who turned 69 on the same day he was released from custody, spoke to reporters and supporters briefly outside the jail before driving off with his brother in a blue Mustang.
Speaking of his future plans, he said he wanted to visit his mother's gravesite. She died while he was in prison, and Woodfox said he was not allowed to go to the funeral.
"Right now I'm just resigned to adjust to being free. I'm not allowing myself to go beyond those thoughts," he said.
As to whether he would have done anything differently back in 1972, Woodfox responded: "When forces are beyond your control, there's not a lot you can do. Angola was a very horrible place at the time and everybody was just fighting to survive from day to day."
In a press release earlier Friday, Woodfox thanked his brother and other supporters who have lobbied over the years for his release.
"Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no contest plea to lesser charges. I hope the events of today will bring closure to many," he said.
The other Angola Three inmates were Robert King, who was released in 2001 after his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate was overturned, and Herman Wallace, who died a free man in October 2013, just days after a judge granted him a new trial in Miller's death.
Woodfox appeared close to freedom in recent years. U.S. District Judge James Brady ordered his release in June and barred a third trial, saying the state could not try Woodfox fairly more than 40 years after Miller's death.
But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Brady, setting up a third trial.
Attorney General Jeff Landry issued the following statement on the plea that led to Woodfox's release:
After more than four decades, the Attorney General's Office has brought finality to the matter of State of Louisiana versus Albert Woodfox.I would like to thank the family of Brent Miller for their courage and cooperation. Their support has been instrumental in today's very difficult decision," it reads. "After carefully considering all of the facts and circumstances surrounding this case and its procedural history, as it stands today - our team of prosecutors believes this plea is in the best interest of justice.It is clear that the Federal District Court has signaled its intention to force Albert Woodfox's release without any admission of guilt. In the best interest of justice and with the recognition of 42 years of hard labor served, we achieved a conviction waving his right to appeal.Today's plea brings closure to the family of Brent Miller, justice for the people of Louisiana, and finality to this decades-long prosecution. Albert Woodfox, by his own plea, stands convicted of the homicide of Brent Miller. In accordance with that plea, he was sentenced to 42 years of incarceration and given credit for time served. Additionally, he waived his rights to appeal this sentence.