When asked about what drove him to sell marijuana, Fate Vincent Winslow simply said, “to get $5 dollars to get something to eat.”
On September 5, 2008, Winslow, who was homeless and hungry, and another man, who documents refer to as “Perdue,” were waiting to meet a man they thought was a buyer. They did not realize he was an undercover police officer.
According to The Daily Beast, officer Jerry Alkire was primarily there looking into rumors that prostitutes were known to frequent that street, so when Winslow asked what he wanted, he replied, “A girl and some weed.”
Winslow gave the man $20 worth of marijuana and asked for a $5 delivery fee.
Winslow was arrested, with the marked $5 on him, and found guilty of distribution of a schedule I substance. Perdue, who was white and had the marked $20, was not arrested.
Winslow had three previous convictions, all non-violent felonies, that had made him ineligible for foodstamps and led him to the moneyless, jobless existence that drove him to that September sale. Those previous convictions made Winslow a candidate for the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and prosecutors went for the toughest sentence. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Winslow’s story might never have been told if not for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigating 650 nonviolent offenders serving life sentences.
Winslow was practically sentenced before he even got to the trial. He could not afford his own lawyer, and his defense attorney hardly made his case, giving just a 30-second-long opening statement.
“I stood up and informed the judge that my lawyer Alex Rubenstein was inaffective (sic) as my council and he was doing nothing to help me,” Winslow recalled. But Rubenstein stayed and didn’t call one witness on Winslow’s behalf.
In his interview, Winslow answered questions about his life and motivations that led to that September day, but then he asked one simple question that turned the interview on its head: “[They] let [Perdue] go and I got life: Please explain.”
Louisiana has the record for life sentences for nonviolent crimes, and when 91 percent of those inmates are black, the problem becomes so obvious that even the Angola Prison warden is speaking against it.
“There’s an answer to this without being so extreme. But we’re still-living-20-years-ago extreme. Throw the human away. He’s worthless. Boom: up the river,” Angola Prison Warden Burl Cain said, reports The Daily Beast. “And yet, he didn’t even kill anybody. He didn’t do anything, he just had an addiction he couldn’t control and he was trying to support it robbing. That’s terrible to rob people—I’ve been robbed, I hate it. I want something done to him. But not all his life. That’s extreme. That’s cruel and unusual punishment to me.”
Even the judges handing down the sentences are perplexed by the injustice of it all. “I think a life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous. It is a travesty,” Judge R. Spencer told Landon Thompson, an African-American 10th-grade dropout sentenced to life for cocaine. “I don’t have any discretion about it. I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”
But perhaps the simplest indictment of the law comes from Winslow himself, during his ACLU interview. “Life sentence for two 5 (sic) dollar bags of weed. People kill people and get five,” he writes.
Find out more details on The Daily Beast.