Louisiana black man sentenced to life in prison receives Thanksgiving miracle after court ruled his conviction illegal

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that a lower court’s decision to sentence a black man to life in prison without parole for stealing a book bag and a pair of sneakers was illegal. Now prosecutors have reduced his charges, and after more than a decade, the senior can go home to see loved ones.

On Tuesday, November 22, East Baton Rouge State Court Judge Tarvald Smith apologized on behalf of the state to Joe “Willie” Washington for how his case was during the 11 years he was imprisoned on petty larceny charges , was handled by the system.

Black man freed from Louisiana
Joe “Willie” Washington (right) with a friend after his release from Angola. (Photo courtesy of The Advocate)

In an effort to right the grave injustice, he re-sentenced the 68-year-old to eight and a half years in the Louisiana Department of Justice, with credit for time already served, the attorney reports.

“Mr. Washington, you have a story to tell,” the judge said. “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 had already served 11 years of his original life without parole at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, more than the new sentence. As a result, he was entitled to immediate release. The judge said Washington should be released “as soon as possible.”

The remarks fell on Washington, his relatives and friends in a mostly empty courtroom the day before the Thanksgiving holiday, giving the family something very special to be thankful for – Washington’s freedom.

In addition to the early release, Assistant District Attorney Jermaine Guillory added that his office would remove the common offender status from his prison record.

In 2011, Washington, a former Scotlandville High School track and field star, was convicted of stealing a backpack and a pair of tennis shoes from the back of a pickup truck outside his alma mater’s football stadium in 2010.

Prosecutors at the time cited his previous convictions, some armed robbery and burglary, dating back to 1970.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore said Washington was a habitual fourth-felony offender and used his previous convictions of armed robbery and two counts of burglary to formulate his current verdict.

Since each of these crimes was punishable by 12 years in prison, and he had one violent felony conviction and two felonies punishable by 12 years or more, he saw that there were grounds under Louisiana’s common offender laws to sentence him to life in prison without sentence probation.

Moore believes judges shouldn’t be able to come in and change the verdict.

“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.”

Habit offender laws, which Moore relies on to support his point, are some of the toughest sentencing laws in the United States and are designed to punish career criminals. Judge Smith stated their use in Washington’s case was inappropriate.

According to Smith, Washington’s prosecutors-cited simple burglary convictions in 2011 may have carried a maximum sentence of 12 years, but that wasn’t the case in 1974, when the other offense actually took place. Almost 50 years ago, the maximum sentence was just nine years.

Washington and his legal team, counsel Chris Edmunds provided by the Innocence Project in New Orleans, have been arguing on this point since October 2020. For the past two years, they’ve filed a motion to have the man sentenced to death.

Edmunds said he took the case because it was “such an obvious mistake” that he originally thought it would be “solved in a couple of months.”

However, when he went up against Moore, he said he felt getting justice for his client was like “pulling teeth.”

Moore said he was just sticking to his belief that the jury’s and judge’s original decision should stand and that it was nothing personal to Washington.

“While some may disagree with the decisions of juries and judges, their decisions must be respected, barring abuse of power,” he said. “Not to do so would seriously compromise the integrity of our system.”

Still, on Wednesday, November 16, the Louisiana Supreme Court sided with Washington and his team, writing in its opinion, “Applicant’s extended sentence of life imprisonment in hard labor without parole, parole, or a suspended sentence is unlawful under the relevant penal provisions.”

“Such [a] The sentence should have been given without probation or a suspension of sentence, but there should not have been a restriction on the eligibility for probation for 11/16/22 because the penalty provision for the underlying offense did not contain one,” the opinion said. “Therefore, we are vacating his extended sentence and referring the District Court to a retrial consistent with that ruling.”

Following the verdict, Edmunds asked the court to give his client a “post-conviction plea deal” under state law.

However, the Supreme Court said that was not necessary because both the mandatory life sentence and the mandate not to be granted parole were unlawful on Washington’s record. The appropriate option would be to fight back.

Experts believe this ruling will make it easier for prosecutors to investigate other cases and reduce sentences deemed unfair or overly punitive.

Washington supporters were delighted, including Linda Gibbens Robinson, who promised to make him a pot of red beans and rice to celebrate his return home. Another friend, Wayne Robinson, spoke about how random the verdict was, saying, “It’s such perfect timing that he’s coming home just before Thanksgiving. We are all grateful. He gets his life back.”

Thankfully, Washington spoke directly to the judge and vowed to stay on track.

“I have my flaws,” he said. “I made a mistake that will never happen again.”