Louisiana prisoner's long path to freedom

The dreams seem just as real now as the recurring visions of freedom that slipped into his sleep during the 30 years he spent in an atrocious Louisiana prison for a crime he says he did not commit.

Only instead of liberating, the dreams are terrifying. Hayes Williams, the former inmate whose jail-house lawsuit forced Louisiana to overhaul its prison system, is haunted by nightmares of coiled razor wire and steel doors that only open with guard approval.

"I wake up sometimes, look around, and say, 'I'm glad that was a dream,' " Mr. Williams says from his fiance's home in New Orleans. "It makes you understand the value of freedom." Williams lost his freedom at age 19, after pleading guilty to taking part in the 1967 murder of a New Orleans gas-station owner.

He was charged with second-degree murder after an argument escalated into a gun battle. Williams claims he wasn't involved, but pleaded guilty after his lawyer told him he would do no more than 10-1/2 years in prison and would avoid the electric chair. So with no previous criminal record, Williams was sent to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to serve his sentence with some of the state's most violent criminals.

Williams won back his freedom in May when a federal judge, taking into consideration a 1997 state court ruling that found prosecutors withheld evidence from his initial trial, ruled he should be given time served for charges stemming from an escape attempt.

The two other men connected to the killing had also been set free. The triggerman was released in 1988 after a pardon by then-Gov. Edwin Edwards. The other was set free in 1993 when a judge similarly ruled that prosecutors withheld evidence.

What took so long for Williams to be released? "He cost the state millions of dollars and years of federal scrutiny," says his new, pro bono lawyer A.F. "Sonny" Armond. "The state wasn't happy about Hayes's lawsuit."

The prison Williams left is far different from the one he entered. That's due in large part to his complaints. In 1971, he took the state to court, charging that living conditions in Angola violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Significant reforms, including federal supervision and an allotment of more than $400 million, came after a federal judge wrote that conditions at the prison would "shock the conscience of any right-thinking person."

One of his most ardent supporters, New Orleans psychiatrist Ellen McKenzie, believes the state of Louisiana owes Williams something. "There was a miscarriage of justice. Something should be done about that."

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