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KATC Investigates: Worthy of Redemption?

Habitual Offender Law in Louisiana
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-06 23:55:50-04

***Part One of this series will air in full at 10 pm on Monday, April 5 with Part Two on Tuesday, April 6 and Part Three on Wednesday, April 6. The full series can be watched starting Thursday, April 7 on our app via the streaming device of your choice, including Roku, Amazon Fire, and Apple TV

We're learning more about a questionable case involving the Habitual Offender Law in Louisiana.

Shreveport native Fate Winslow was sentenced to life in prison for his fourth felony offense, a $20 marijuana sale.

KATC Investigates takes a closer look at the law's fairness and if it needs to be modified. Tonight at 10 we speak with Winslow and his attorney about his case and how he was able to obtain his freedom.

Growing up in Shreveport was tough on Fate Winslow.

“When you got out of school, there was nowhere to go, nothing to do so basically you had to find something to do. We didn’t have any parks or recreations back then,” said Fate Winslow.

He often found himself hanging out on street corners with the wrong crowd. It led up to a run-in with an undercover police officer in 2008 that would change Winslow’s life forever.

According to Winslow’s attorney, the officer approached Winslow asking for girls. Instead of getting him a sex worker, Winslow offered him drugs. At the time Winslow was homeless and borrowed a friend's bike, coming back 10 minutes later with two small bags of marijuana worth $20.

He was arrested and with three prior felonies - a burglary of a business in 1985, a car burglary ten years later and possession of cocaine when he was 36 - the $20 sale landed Winslow a life sentence at the age of 41.

“You’ll come back and use that one against me and enhance my sentence, a life sentence for two bags of weed because I had a burglary when I was 17. That was 20 years ago. I don’t understand that. That’s a law that doesn’t make sense. You pay all that parole money, then you pay all the fees and everything, then they come back and use it again. I mean how is that legal?” said Winslow.

Under Louisiana law, R.S. 15:529.1, a person who commits more than one felony can have their sentence enhanced if more felonies are committed. Because the law counts nonviolent felony convictions, several people are serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses.

“In less than 90 days took me to trial, picked a jury, and found me guilty. Ten whites found me guilty two blacks didn’t. Twelve years no money, no justice. You go through their system and file paperwork and try and do an appeal. You’re just wasting paper and ink. If you don’t have money you’ll be there,” said Winslow.

“Here is this man who is now in his early 50s who spent the last 12 years of his life in prison for two dime bags of marijuana. He’s doing a life sentence for marijuana and he had no violence in his past, so I could not imagine how it is that we, the citizens of Louisiana, feel comfortable and feel okay with sentencing someone to die in Angola when they haven’t done any violent acts in their past,” said Jee Park.

Park, Winslow’s attorney and executive director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, says it took her team nearly three years to have Winslow’s case brought back into court to prove he had an unfair trial. Park says the habitual offender law needs to be revised.

“The original intent of this habitual offender law was supposed to get to the dangerous people. The people who are habitually committing violent offenses that are actually harming individuals and communities. I’m sure that was the original intent, but I think by making that habitual offender bill apply to all felonies there are many crimes that are identified as felonies that are not violent,” said Park.

Winslow was released from Angola in December 2020. His case is one of several in the state.

“There is a real racial aspect to the sentences that we see and who gets the most severe sentences in Louisiana when you look at the people who are sentenced to life in Louisiana in Angola you will see that 90% of those men and women in prison are black men and women,” Park added.

“If you have time to sit down and just start seeing things and understanding things and you see there’s no justice. If it wouldn't have been for Ms. Jee with the Innocence Project out of New Orleans, I was going to sit there until eventually. That’s what it’s designed for,” said Winslow.

In Part II of our investigation, we learn more about who controls the prosecution in cases involving habitual offenders.

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