Moral Low Ground

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Louisiana Man Gets Life in Prison for Selling $20 Worth of Marijuana

(Photo: Color Lines)

(Photo: Color Lines)

A hungry and homeless man who was entrapped into selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover narcotics officer in Louisiana has been sentenced to life in prison, with hard labor, and no parole.

The Daily Beast reports Fate Vincent Winslow, 41, was approached by a stranger on a dark, crime-ridden street in Shreveport on the night of September 5, 2008.

“What do you need?” Winslow asked. “A girl and some weed,” replied the man, who unbeknown to Winslow was undercover officer Jerry Alkire. The men negotiated a deal—Winslow would get and sell Alkire two dime bags ($10 each), plus a $5 delivery charge—and the would-be seller rode off on a bike belonging to a third man present at the scene, identified in court documents only as Purdue.

Winslow returned to the scene, allegedly with marijuana. Money and drugs were exchanged. Suddenly law enforcement officers appeared out of nowhere, finding $5 on Winslow and $20 on Purdue. Winslow was arrested and hauled off to jail.

Because of Winslow’s criminal record, which consisted of three nonviolent felony convictions, prosecutors had sought the maximum sentence for the marijuana conviction. When he was 17, and again when he was 26, he’d been convicted of simple burglary. In 2004, a charge of cocaine possession meant any further convictions and he could be facing the possibility of dying behind bars for something as harmless as a small-time pot bust.

How authorities expected Winslow to survive is a mystery. Multiple convictions left him without money, unable to get a job, and ineligible for government food or housing assistance thanks to President Bill Clinton’s “end to welfare as we know it” nearly 20 years ago.

Six months after his arrest, a jury found Winslow guilty of marijuana distribution. There were 12 jurors; 10 white and two black. All the white jurors voted ‘guilty,’ while the two blacks believed Winslow was innocent. The jury was also not informed of the life sentence the defendant would face if found guilty.

Three months after Winslow’s conviction, his sentence was announced—life imprisonment under hard labor, with no possibility of parole. Purdue was never arrested.

“The jury wasn’t told [about the life sentence during the trial],” one of the jurors, a woman whose job requires her to remain anonymous, told the Daily Beast. “I do remember it was a very small amount of marijuana. It was ridiculously small.”

“Whoever his lawyer was didn’t make any case for him,” she continued. “In my mind I thought…why are we doing this for such a small amount? I think it’s really an imbalance of the punishment fitting the crime. I don’t think it’s fair when we’re looking back and states are legalizing this drug. Now it’s petty to me. I don’t know if it’s a petty crime, but it seems pretty petty.”

This isn’t the first time a Louisiana man has been jailed for life for selling—or even possessing—a plant which is now legal for recreational use in four states and the nation’s capital, and for medical use in two dozen states. In 2011, Cornell Hood II of Slidell was sentenced to life in prison for possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute. It was his third nonviolent drug conviction.

“Luckier” defendants face prison sentences as long as 20 years for possessing small amounts of a plant you can legally purchase in hundreds of retail stores across America. As jubilant tokers puffed away on perfectly legal joints and pipes in Alaska and Washington, DC last week to celebrate legalization there, Cornell Hood II, Corey Ladd, Fate Vincent Winslow and others were finishing another day of hard labor behind bars.

Winslow’s story never made headlines in Louisiana. But in 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was investigating the nearly 3,300 people serving life prison sentences for nonviolent offenses in the United States—nearly eight in ten of them for drugs—came across his file.

“For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana,” the ACLU report, “A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses,” states. “An estimated 65 percent of them are black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.”

Jennifer Turner, the investigator who compiled the ACLU report, called Winslow’s case “tragically typical,” telling the Daily Beast that his is “a typical example of the draconian punishments meted out under three-strikes laws.” In Louisiana, 429 inmates are serving life sentences for offenses like Winslow’s. More than 90 percent of them are black, like Winslow. Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the notorious prison where Winslow is serving his sentence, has the largest population of black men serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes in the world.

Even Angola’s warden calls sentences like Winslow’s “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“There’s an answer to this without being so extreme. But we’re still-living-20-years-ago extreme. Throw the human away. He’s worthless. Boom: up the river,” Warden Burl Cain told the Daily Beast. “And yet, he didn’t even kill anybody. He didn’t do anything… That’s cruel and unusual punishment to me.”

Some judges are also outraged by minimum mandatory sentencing that destroys the lives of defendants.

“I think a life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous. It is a travesty,” Judge R. Spencer told Landon Thompson, a black high school dropout who he was required to sentence to life in prison for cocaine possession. “I don’t have any discretion about it. I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”

There is a strong racial element to the system. Although whites are slightly more likely to abuse drugs than blacks, blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than blacks, and then 20 times as likely to be sentenced to prison for nonviolent transgressions. According to the Daily Beast,

Blacks are 23 times more likely to be sentenced to life for a nonviolent crime in Louisiana, 18 times more likely than whites in Oklahoma, and an incredible 33 more in Illinois. Louisiana isn’t the only state to have a majority of black inmates make up their life sentence for nonviolent crimes. Mississippi’s population of prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes is 78.5 percent black; in Illinois it’s 70; South Carolina and Florida, above 60.

These shocking disparities are due in large part to discriminatory law enforcement targeting policies and practices like New York City’s infamously unconstitutional ‘stop-and-frisk,’ a small part of the larger epidemic of mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos in the failed ‘War on Drugs.’

Winslow, rotting behind bars, notes that he got a “life sentence for two five dollar bags of weed,” while “people kill people and get five.” When asked in an ACLU questionnaire, “What’s life been like in prison?” Winslow replied, “There is no life in prison… just waiting to die.”

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