Angola lifer from Baton Rouge allowed to walk free | Crime/Police

A book bag and a pair of tennis shoes snatched from the back of a pickup truck after a Scotlandville High football game earned Joe “Willie” Washington life behind bars without parole.

The 68-year-old former track star and prostate cancer survivor has spent the last decade at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola fighting that ruling. Washington has long argued in court filings that a judge and prosecutors misapplied the law — they wrongly ruled an old theft on his record had a maximum sentence of 12 years, threatening him as a lifelong habitual offender without parole.

The Louisiana Supreme Court this week upheld Washington, declaring its verdict illegal.

The High Court ruling illustrates a roadblock for offenders trying to take advantage of a new Louisiana law that makes it easier for prosecutors to reduce sentences deemed unfair or overly punitive. Even amid a wave of reforms that freed thousands of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, district attorneys have inconsistently offered second chances under the new law — some reluctant to use them even in cases so extreme that courts later ruled unlawful to explain.

Washington’s attorney said he was trying to get him a post-conviction deal under the law, which was passed as Law 104 in 2021. Prosecutors declined, the attorney said.

“I’ve never killed anyone,” Washington said in a recent interview at his housing unit in Angola. “I don’t really understand, with all the crime that’s going on out there, why someone else couldn’t have my bed.”

Some Louisiana prosecutors, most notably Jason Williams in Orleans Parish, have liberally cited the plea statute in an attempt to trim old convictions. But East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore’s office has used it more selectively — in four post-conviction deals to date. He said his office has received about 80 requests from offenders for pleas under the law.

He has “no ax to grind” with Washington, Moore said in an interview earlier this year. At the same time, he expressed a common view among prosecutors in southern Louisiana: the judges’ power to impose and modify sentences should remain untouchable.

“The doctrine of separation of powers is a fundamental constitutional principle that must be respected and followed,” Moore said. “We believe that (post-conviction law) was not intended to make prosecutors parole or parole boards, nor do prosecutors have the power to commute sentences. Likewise, decision-making powers in the judiciary are separate for good reason.”

A long court battle

An East Baton Rouge jury convicted Washington in 2011 of stealing from the back of a pickup truck outside Scotlandville High’s football stadium the previous year. Moore’s office argued at the time that Washington should get life without parole because he was a fourth common felon, with previous convictions for armed robbery and two burglaries, each carrying 12 years in prison.

The combination of a violent felony conviction and two felonies punishable by 12 years or more is grounds for life without parole under Louisiana’s repeat offender laws, which are among the country’s toughest improvements to repeat offenders.

Washington, who received a scholarship to Jackson State University in Mississippi after graduating from Scotlandville High in 1972, successfully argued in the state Supreme Court that the law had not been properly applied in his case. While one of his simple burglary convictions cited by prosecutors had a maximum sentence of 12 years at the time of his sentencing in 2011, this was not the case when the offense actually took place in 1974; At that time, the maximum sentence was only nine years, wrote the Supreme Court of Justice.

Washington’s age and health history mark him as part of a rapidly aging prison population that is straining the Louisiana prison system. Chris Edmunds, an attorney who took on Washington’s case in 2020 on the recommendation of the New Orleans-based Innocence Project, said getting relief for what appeared to be an obvious clerical error — even before the post-conviction law gave it an option — has proven difficult became.

“I thought that was such an obvious mistake that I would file a motion and we could probably work that out in a couple of months,” Edmunds said. “That was October 2020. It’s like pulling your teeth.”

Other DAs

Law 104, drafted by Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office and attorneys at the Innocence Project New Orleans, had the support of the powerful Louisiana District Attorneys Association when it went through the state legislature in 2021.

While part of the measure expands the ability for prisoners to plead innocence once their appeals have dried up, another part of the bill aims to provide legal protection in a scenario that’s been playing out in Louisiana courts for years: prosecutors have Judges have long asked to grant such post-sentencing deals to avoid protracted litigation when new evidence challenges older verdicts, but also for other reasons.

The law’s most prolific adopter was Williams, the Orleans District Attorney. Curtis Elmore III, a spokesman for Williams, “is an excellent addition that requires transparency in procedures and inspires community confidence that cases will be resolved on the basis of the issues at hand and not through backdoor agreements between attorneys,” it said in a message.

Moore said there are some cases where he would consider citing the law: those where flawed evidence comes to light years after a conviction, or for certain defendants who have exceeded the deadlines to file appeals.

But he firmly believes that most sentencing decisions should be made by judges – a view shared by other prosecutors in the region.

“Prosecutors bring charges and are responsible for prosecuting; There’s a reason prosecutors don’t ultimately decide who is guilty and don’t convict,” he said. “Even if some disagree with the decisions of juries and judges, their decisions must be respected, barring abuse of power. Otherwise, the integrity of our system would be significantly compromised.”

District Attorney for the 18th District Tony Clayton has not invoked the statute to change sentences for offenders in his district west of the Mississippi; neither did the 20th District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla in East and West Feliciana Townships.

“I truly believe that jury judgments and judges’ decisions matter,” Clayton said. “They were in a better place to make the decision at the time they made it. The witnesses testified. They evaluated the testimonies and the raw evidence in real time.”

District attorneys for the 21st judicial circuit in Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes and the 23rd judicial circuit in Ascension, St. James and Assumption parishes did not immediately respond to messages asking about their application of the plea law after the conviction. “

Markus Kondkar, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who primarily studies sentencing, said a lack of prosecutorial oversight contributes to both the use of repeat offender statutes and sentencing parole decisions.

“If there’s a sense among voters that they want as many people as possible to go to jail because they fear for public safety,” Kondkar said, “there’s no political risk in pushing your discretion toward strictness.” called.”

A long fight

In its ruling in the Washington case, the state Supreme Court made clear what it has long argued: the simple 1974 burglary of its record was not punishable by 12 years in prison. It wasn’t until 1977 that that law was amended so that the maximum penalty for this offense was 12 years in prison, the Supreme Court wrote.

Not only was Washington’s life sentence unlawful, but so was the mandate that he not receive parole, the court ruled.

At his sentencing hearing in 2011, Washington said the public defender assigned to his case failed to comment on the discrepancy. The East Baton Rouge Office of the Public Defender did not immediately respond with an inquiry about the case.

Washington’s family and friends say his exposure to the criminal justice system coincided with various points in his life when he struggled mightily — at times with drug addiction, but especially after the death of his young daughter in the 1970s.

“To see him wronged by the court system and overpay his debts… he’s an old man now,” his sister Deborah Eackles said. “Why can’t he come home?”

Moore said staff at his office plan to meet to discuss Washington’s case Monday in light of last week’s Supreme Court ruling. And an East Baton Rouge judge has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to reevaluate his verdict.

Washington should have been the fourth felon to be sentenced to “not less than twenty years and not more than his natural life,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in their verdict.