Voices from Inside: Our Currently-Incarcerated Members React to HB 1077

Legislators at the Louisiana Capitol have expressed various motivations regarding prison issues, including the current legal challenge regarding approximately 1500 people who languish in prison with non-unanimous convictions. Most of these people are currently sentenced until their death. The U.S. Supreme Court instructed Louisiana that retroactively reversing these (now universally recognized as) unconstitutional convictions is up to them, and both the legislature and courts have been called upon to act. 

VOTE’s most recent email to legislators regarding HB 1077 invited them to visit people in prison and ask their views on the bill. And only yesterday, in a hearing regarding counting incarcerated people as “residents” of a district for the purpose of apportioning legislative power, several legislators expressed their close connection to the prisons. Rep. Lacombe, who represents 6000 residents confined in Angola, called them a part of the “community.” Rep. Deshotel, who represents people confined in two prisons in the Cottonport area mentioned his support for capital outlay projects (a.k.a. prison construction and repairs). Rep. Ivey explained how he hears from people in prison “all the time,” albeit via family members of the currently incarcerated. Rep. Gaines, who sponsored HB 1077, has expressed how he is trying to help the 1500 convicted through Jim Crow trials, and believes this bill, creating parole eligibility, may be the best we can do.

Despite all those declarations of community, we’ve heard no responses from lawmakers wishing to visit. Here is a sampling of what they would hear from people actually locked away without a key.  [formatted for clarity]

Keith A.

“Now, to express the general sentiments of those incarcerated, concerning the DEATH BILL HB 1077. 

Most of the 10-2’ers I’ve talked to are not only opposed to, but in utter disbelief by the sham that the legislature is attempting to enact by this bill. Here are some viewpoints: 

  • The Special Committee on Parole amounts to a 13th juror, or basically a retrial of our cases. 
  • The impaneling of members: 
    • Three retired judges- what will be their political slant? (will the Governor consider or be prohibited from considering Ret. Justice B. Johnson?) 
    • One retired District Attorney- will this selection be from one of the parishes that is against granting relief of non-unanimous juries? 
    • One retired public defender- after finding that the IDB [Indigent Defender Board] was unconstitutionally ineffective, could a petitioner elect to hire a private attorney for adequate representation?
  • Section F(1)(e) stipulates that the DA will be permitted to file a written response to the petitioner’s application. Will the petitioner be allowed to submit a Brief in Support of his PCR, or traverse the state’s rebuttal? 
  • Section 2(b) allows for any testimony of the petitioner or victim. Will this infringe upon the petitioner’s 6th Amendment right to confrontation and cross – examination? 
  • Miscarriage of Justice is clearly established by the non-unanimous jury verdict itself. 
  • Vote for parole. * 3/5 for non-lifers * 5/5 for lifers. Why the disparity of votes for the same finding of erroneous application of the law? 
  • Submit entirety of records: An extra burden on petitioner. * costs (upward of $300 for transcripts) * time of obtaining documents will toll the time period for filing for parole. 
  • Section 2 stipulates that “The provisions of this Act shall terminate either three years after the effective date of this Act or upon a ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court that the holding in Ramos v. La. is retroactive. * If this board will be terminated in 3 years, by mathematical assumption, this Board will have to review; * 1500 cases in 36 months; * 500 cases a year; * 42 cases a month; * 10 cases a week; * 2 cases a day. Albeit, this will be in lieu of reviewing court documents that are on the average of 500-800 pages a case. Can these “Super-Justices”, with legal clarity; review, discuss, deliberate, and decide the fate of two cases a day, every week, every month, for three consecutive years? 

Not only is Parole a terrible substitute for doing the right thing, it would be legally insufficient to settle the issue of the unconstitutional non-unanimous jury verdicts rendered in the cases of 1500 men who were never judicially found guilty of a crime. The only righteous remedy would be to retry or acquit these inadequate convictions. Then, and only then, can a tribunal declare “collateral estoppel” (it stops here), not by the passing of HB 1077. The Louisiana Supreme Court has a responsibility to fix this terrible injustice, and fix it now!” 

Keith S.

“The question is how could the federal government turn a blind eye to the non-unanimity dilemma impacting those whose sentence has been finalized? SCOTUS outlawed this white-supremacist ideology which originated in a 1898 convention in Ramos v. Louisiana; yet, left open avenues for states to rectify finalized convictions. This oblivious ruling incentivized people who hold a similar white-supremacist mindset to reaffirm Jim Crow by establishing a ‘special parole panel’ to decide the fate of those impacted. The panel consists of 3 retired judges, 1 retired district attorney, and 1 retired public defender, of which all are constituents of the State of Louisiana which clearly disadvantages those seeking relief. This is analogous to sending a coyote into a slaughtered pack of impala, doing an investigation of its own kind. In addition, the redundancy exists where we are being wrongfully detained due to the 10-2 and 11-1 verdicts making our detention illegal, yet one must meet specified requisites to garner this ‘parole’ ( relief), when in actuality we are still innocent due to the unconstitutionality of our convictions. 

Furthermore, the Louisiana legislature deemed that one cannot be granted this parole unless upon review of one’s full direct appeal record it is determined one received a ‘miscarriage of justice’; when in all honesty, anytime someone is deprived of their freedom in violation of the U. S. Constitution, there is always a miscarriage of justice. Vindication of this sort was attempted to be justified in the times of slavery and anyone who attempts to do so now embodies a similar flawed philosophy displayed in Dred Scott vs. Sanford. [1857 U.S. Supreme Court case holding that The Constitution was not meant to include citizenship for people of African descent, whether enslaved or free, thus rights and privileges do not apply.] 

Thomas Jefferson deemed in The Constitution, ‘ life, liberty, and happiness’, as fundamentals in establishing life in this American democracy; thus declaring freedom as the foundation of American citizenship. There is no life without liberty, and there can never be happiness if one is not granted their liberty. 

Saint Constantine declared, “Any unjust law is no law at all.”

Kevin X.

“I read [HB 1077] and it’s a disappointing piece of legislation that proves as you said in the last email that “Jim Crow” and “Racism” is still alive and active. This law, which is a procedure Louisiana chose to implement during the late-1800s was a way to incarcerate Blacks in the South and reimplement slavery through a criminal justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court found this law unconstitutional, but failed to correct it (Edwards v. Vannoy) and left it up to the state to remedy this illegal law. Yet, this state fails to acknowledge the unconscious racism that is being offered by failing to correct a simple problem. They can correct it just by giving everyone affected by this procedure a new trial. I mean everyone should receive a new trial, those who can prove they were convicted by a Non-Unanimous Jury Verdict and those without their jury polling slips. 

When I think about racism, I think about what Spike Lee said. “Racism is when you have laws set up, systematically put in the way to keep people from advancing, to stop the advancement of a people. Black people have never had the power to enforce racism, and so this is something that white America is going to have to work out themselves. If they decide they want to stop it, curtail it, or do the right thing… then it will be done, but not until then.” 

H.B. 1077 is sending a signal to everyone, especially prisoners directly affected, that those currently in power will never acknowledge the crafter’s racism of the past that existed back then, and still exists today in the very fabric of this state. Hopefully, the Louisiana Supreme Court will do the right thing in the State v. Riddick case.

Lionel W.

“I speak on behalf of all the guys here at Angola when I say we appreciate all the hard work VOTE and PJI has put forth on our behalf because of the injustice that was done to minorities since 1898. Our country is supposed to be based on freedom and equality. However, there are people that just refuse to give up their evil ways. We will prevail though. No retreat, no surrender is the key is most definitely our motto. It’s hard to picture the mindset of the person responsible for making 744 (1077). He wants to offer parole for an unjust act only if we can prove that we are actually innocent of the act that’s totally unjust. It makes no sense at all. 

Everyone that votes yea for that needs to be placed on a recall ballot and pressed hard by the press to show their ill intent of how they feel about Louisiana citizens. 

On another note, the attorney general has opposed Act 104 (930.10 B) which gives the district attorney and the courts the power to amend a person’s charge to a lesser offense through a post conviction plea agreement. He is saying that 930.10 is unconstitutional. That issue will be addressed on May 26, 2022 in St. Tammany Parish (State of Louisiana vs. William Lee). It’s just one battle after another, but we must win this war. Be blessed, and keep me in prayer. 

Paul G.

“Thank you Vote, I appreciate your email to me about the things that went on at the arguments for retro. I am glad that Jamila [Johnson, attorney in State v. Reddick] brought up the plain fact that while people like Gaines are appearing to offer up a ‘remedy’ with a parole eligibility, they are not dealing with the CAUSE. I see that they are going to do what they wish to do regardless of the lack of constitutionality or anything else. I am not discouraged with this. I expected push back. 

I am not predicting anything, but I can see the La. Supreme Court waiting until the session is over, and going over the arguments. The bottom line is, the Supreme Court, if it acts, will have to decide whether they want to piss off a few prosecutors, or if they really want to be back before the SCOTUS court again on Equal Protection Clause violations. (With the same legal issue, for a third time). Again, I am thinking (without research, admittedly), that if the La. Supreme Court gives a nod to legislative action during the session on this Gaines bill, then they will have supported it. My point is that then I will file directly into federal Court on the issue as the highest court in the state has supported the legislature in creating yet another non-remedial ‘remedy’ regarding the people still incarcerated. 

They are trying to make it about continued incarceration because they want to be able to say who gets it and who does not. If they address the constitutional issue, then they cannot be as discriminatory about who benefits. It is much easier to issue parole eligibilities, and then they can decide who to grant, and who to deny… possible for the remainder of their lives. 

Anyway, I want you and everyone in those t-shirts to know that I as a lifer, under 10-2, appreciate everything that you all are doing. I thank you for the hard work, the tireless efforts and the time you sacrifice that could be used for other things. believe me when I say that this is going to work out. The truth is, the constitutional issue is the CAUSE, and it is not going to go away. It might not be won on a state level, but then most RIGHT things are not. The Feds have a long history of having to watchdog Louisiana policy. It is not new to them, and Louisiana is used to being babysat by the Federal Court system to the degree that I think they prefer to go this far as they will suffer no personal consequences for doing so. They can throw up their hands and tell their constituents that the feds forced it. 

 I will be in touch when I have a clemency hearing. Right now, I am fighting with the Trial court – the Judge signed an order for the clerk to give me a copy of the jury poll, and this was a couple of months ago. I am about to file a writ of mandamus into 4th Circuit Court on the matter. Again, I encourage you to remember that we have to fight one battle at a time, surround our efforts with prayer, and encourage one another that no matter how hard it is, people have fought harder for less. The legacy that will be left behind after this battle will be one that we can tell our grandchildren about and let them know that they are assured a fair trial in Louisiana, a thing impossible in our day. THAT is something worth leaving behind. Remember the story isn’t over. When you read a story, it is not the beginning or the middle of the story that makes it a good or bad story. It is how the story ends. There is no end to the fight left in me. I thank you for being as diligent.

Zydeco B.

“Hello to my big family at VOTE, 

Hey!! how is everyone doing? It is so exciting to hear from you guys as usual. Y’all are the only family that messages me on this tablet. I read everything in the email about y’all extreme battles at the capital, some things may fall and even fail, but what matters the most is how we regroup, reorganize in a strategic manner in which we can put our fighter back in the fight to win the championship title belt which is the bills in which we are trying to get passed. The fight may end, but the battle is never over. People’s lives are at stake, and the lawmakers will have 10,000 reasons why men, and women alike should stay in prison, but at the end of the day you guys at VOTE are our champions, and the voices for those of us who cannot speak. 

Just last night I was elected and put on the board of Toastmasters International as the Sergeant Of Arms. This is big for me to be a board member of such an Internationally known organization is huge. I was telling the rest of the board members about my VOTE family, and what y’all are doing. I told them I have been indigent for about a year and a half now fighting this place for hygiene products, and my incentive pay, and how it’s hard watching other people go to store, and buy stuff from the other clubs to enjoy good meals, and me not being able to really sucks, but VOTE who didn’t even know me stepped up and started writing me with a prepaid reply attached to the email was my only hope in life and chance to actually feel like help was finally here. I told them that me being in contact with y’all made me look at that situation as a positive. So I said all of that to say I don’t need anything because I know that y’all are here for me when no one else is. Stay blessed and encouraged my family. I am at your service.

Do you have a loved on the inside who wants to connect with VOTE? They can send messages via JPAY to [email protected]. We’ll pay for all correspondence.