A man sentenced to life without parole under Louisiana’s repeat offender statute for stealing a book bag and a pair of tennis shoes will soon walk free after the state Supreme Court ruled his sentence illegal and prosecutors tried to reduce his charges.
East Baton Rouge state court judge Tarvald Smith told Joe “Willie” Washington, 68, Tuesday that he was sorry for how the court system had handled Washington’s case over the years. Smith again sentenced Washington to eight and a half years in the Louisiana Department of Justice, counting time served, after Assistant District Attorney Jermaine Guillory Smith said his office would strip Washington of habitual offender status.
“Mr. Washington, you have a story to tell,” Smith told the courtroom, which was mostly empty except for a handful of Washington’s family and friends. “The law can be unfair at times. But in the end, when I take off this black robe.” , I think justice has prevailed in this case.”
Washington has served 11 years of his original life without parole, meaning he is eligible for an immediate release. Smith ordered him released from Angola “as soon as possible”.
The former Scotlandville track and field star was convicted in 2011 for stealing the book bag and tennis shoes from the back of a pickup truck outside Scotlandville High football stadium the previous year. By this point, he already had prior convictions dating back to the 1970s for armed robbery and two burglaries.
Moore’s office argued at the time that Washington should get life without parole because he was a fourth common offender with prior 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 common offender laws, which are among the country’s toughest improvements for those with criminal records .
An error in sentencing
While one of the simple burglary convictions cited by prosecutors in Washington carried a maximum sentence of 12 years at the time of his sentencing in 2011, that was not the case when the offense was actually committed in 1974. At that time, the maximum sentence was just nine years, Washington had argued for a long time.
An attorney referred to Washington’s case by the Innocence Project in New Orleans in 2020, Chris Edmunds, said he spent about two years pursuing law enforcement in the case.
Then last week the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled with Washington, declaring its verdict illegal.
The ruling highlighted an obstacle for offenders trying to take advantage of a new state law that makes it easier for prosecutors to reduce certain sentences deemed overly punitive or unfair. Though the law had the backing of the powerful District Attorneys Association, prosecutors in southern Louisiana have unevenly offered second chances under the measure — some reluctant to use it, even in cases so extreme that courts later ruled.
Edmunds had attempted to get Washington a so-called post-conviction plea deal under the law, which passed as Law 104 in 2021.
The Supreme Court said both the mandatory life sentence and the mandate not to grant Washington parole were unlawful, and sent the case back to Smith’s courtroom for Washington to be tried again.
“He’ll get his life back”
After Guillory explained the district attorney’s decision to repeal the common offender statute, Smith announced the new sentence and the small crowd erupted in applause.
Washington, bound hand and foot and wearing a large denim jacket over the shoulders of his orange prison suit, stood and thanked Smith for handling the case. One of his friends, Linda Gibbens Robinson, said in court that she was looking forward to cooking red beans and rice to celebrate his return home.
“I have my flaws,” Washington told Smith. “I made a mistake that will never happen again.”
One of Washington’s close childhood friends, Wayne Robinson, said his loved ones are grateful to both the prosecution and Smith for their decision to drop the common criminal charges and sentence him to a served time.
“It’s such perfect timing that he’s coming home just before Thanksgiving,” Robinson said. “We are grateful to everyone. He gets his life back.”
Edmunds said Washington would need to return to Angola Tuesday afternoon for processing by the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and would likely be released Tuesday evening or early Wednesday.