By Billy Sinclair | The Crime Report | August 12, 2022
This is a tale of two men who, as teenagers, committed crimes of murder. One is black, the other is white. Henry is the black teenager; Andrew, the white teenager.
Their cases are about the failure of justice in the Louisiana criminal justice system.
I know Louisiana justice.
I spent 40 years, four months and eleven days in four of the state’s penal facilities between 1966 and 2006. I rose from the bowels of a death cell to become an award-winning journalist.
I received the George Polk, ABA Silver Gavel, and co-shared the Robert Kennedy and Sidney Hillman awards.
Eighteen years after arriving on Death Row as an angry, no-purposed 21-year-old, I was sitting on ABC’s Nightline, hosted by Ted Koppel, sharing conversation and philosophy with the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Warren E. Burger.
The evolution of these and thousands of other prison experiences transformed me into one of Louisiana’s most acclaimed “rehabilitated” inmates—a rehabilitation supported by Sister Helen Prejean, the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission, and a host of other remarkable people.
Along the way, through all the ups-and-downs inherent in penal incarceration, I acquired both personal and professional insights into Louisiana’s corrupt political process and its racist-infected criminal justice and penal systems.
These factors influenced the way the state deals with wrongdoers.
Tried as Juveniles
And that brings us back to Henry and Andrew—both admitted wrongdoers. They were tried and convicted as adults for crimes committed as juveniles. Both were committed to the Louisiana prison system with life sentences.
In November 1963, Henry, who had just turned 17, shot and killed a white 40-year-old juvenile police officer who tried to detain the teenager for “playing hooky” from school.
Henry was initially convicted in a highly charged racial environment and sentenced to death. That conviction and sentence were set aside after which he was retried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Henry was committed to the Louisiana State Penitentiary when the prison—more commonly known as Angola—was the “bloodiest prison in America.”
In July 1997, Andrew, then 15, bludgeoned a 14-year-old white girl to death because she criticized the shape and size of his nose and ears. He was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Unlike Henry, Andrew was committed to the Louisiana prison system—not Angola—where he was housed in safe, medium and minimum security facilities.
Both juveniles, as inmates, established productive, meaningful records of individual rehabilitation. Neither ever posed a threat to other inmates or staff. Both were “model inmates.”
In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that extended parole eligibility—or some other release opportunity—to roughly 800 inmates in the nation’s penal systems who were teenagers tried as adults.
That ruling included Henry and Andrew.
In June 2016, five months after the Supreme Court ruling, Andrew became the first Louisiana “juvenile” inmate to be released on parole. He had served 19 years.
In November 2021, more than five years after the Supreme Court ruling, Henry was also released on parole. He had served 57 years. He was the 17th juvenile lifer released on parole in Louisiana since 2016.
Unlike Andrew, Henry had previously been denied parole twice by the parole board in 2018 and 2019.
At one of those two parole sessions, the board released another teenager tired as an adult who committed a double murder.
One of the board members who voted against Henry in 2018 told the 71-year-old man: “In 54 years of incarceration, all you’ve taken were two classes. You are only doing what you need to get by.”
Why did the white juvenile murderer serve just 19 years while the black juvenile murderer served 57 years?
And why did the parole board grant parole to the white juvenile murderer at his first eligibility hearing while taking three hearings before granting parole to the black juvenile murderer?
The glaring disparity in the treatment between the black and white juvenile murderers begs to be answered.
Could it be that the life of a 40-year-old juvenile police officer is more important than the life of a 14-year-old small town girl?
Or could it be Louisiana’s systemic racism against black offenders who commit crimes against white victims?
Louisiana has a dark history of systemic racism—a history that lingers like a cultural sore to this very day. It is reflected in the way the state’s criminal justice system disparately treasts black and white criminal offenders, especially black offenders who commit crimes against white victims.
In May 2016, four months after the Supreme Court ruling, the Editorial Boardof The New York Times called out Louisiana out for having a “color-coded” death penalty system that makes black men 30 times “as likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white woman as for killing a black man.”
The Times pointed out that regardless of an offender’s race, the offender is six times more likely to receive a death sentence when the victim is “white rather than black.”
That is exactly why Henry received a death sentence and Andrew did not; why Henry spent 57 years in the state’s maximum security prison; and why Andrew was the first juvenile lifer to be paroled five months after the 2016 Supreme Court decision while Henry had to serve five more years and experience two release denials before he was paroled.
The evidence is compelling that every facet of the Louisiana criminal justice system is “color-coded.”
The Prison Policy Initiative reports there are roughly 46,000 inmates housed in Louisiana prisons, local jails, and detention facilities. More than 5,000 of these inmates are serving life without parole sentences in Angola alone, roughly75 percent of whom are black.
The New Orleans Innocence Project says 67.8 percent of the state’s inmate population is black with black people being incarcerated at a rate of 4 times higher than that of white people. And the Marshall Project reports that, “the typical Louisiana lifer today is a 52-year-old Black man who has been locked up for a little over two decades …”
There have been 11 death penalty exonerations in Louisiana since 1970. All involved some form of prosecutorial misconduct, reports the Death Penalty Information Center. Most involved black offenders.
These numbers depict the undeniable systemic racism rooted in Louisiana justice.
In Louisiana, systemic racism begins with arrest, charging, bail, jail housing, jury selection, trial, conviction, sentencing, appeal, prison assignments, institutional job assignments, prison classification decisions, disciplinary proceedings, solitary confinement, and finally parole releases.
The Angola Two
A portrait of Louisiana justice can be seen in the internationally known “Angola Two” case. Two black inmates, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, spent more than four decades in maximum security solitary confinement for the killing of an Angola prison guard in 1973.
Wallace spent 41 years in solitary confinement before a federal judge ordered his release from prison so he could die in hospice care in New Orleans. Wallace died on October 4, 2013—just three days after his release.
Woodfox was released from prison a little more than two years later,. He spent 43 years in solitary confinement.
And there was the internationally known case of Edgar Labat and Alton Clifton Poret—two black men who spent 13 years on Louisiana’s death row for the 1950 rape of a white woman in New Orleans.
That 13-year period in 1964 eclipsed the 12-year record set by Caryl Chessman on California’s death row before his execution on May 2, 1960 in the state’s gas chambers.
These death row stays were staggering in the 1950s and ‘60s..
Labat also gained additional international attention in 1963 when Angola prison officials shut down his correspondence with a Swedish housewife from Stockholm. She had taken an interest in his case. Angola prison authorities aid state law forbade “Negroes” from corresponding with white people.
I never knew Henry or Andrew. Our prison paths never crossed. I cannot speak about their prison experience.
But I can speak about Louisiana justice. I have no doubt that race was the reason Henry served 57 years while Andrew served 19 years. That’s a 38-year difference in punishment.
Virtually every one of the 3,500 Black lifers confined at Angola today will die there alone in the prison’s hospice unit or its geriatric ward or in one of its hundreds of filthy solitary cells.
Henry and Andrew are free men today.
Andrew is doing remarkably well. He has pursued his education and established organization that helps aging lifers like Henry in securing parole release. And, as irony would have it, Andrew was instrumental in getting Henry a parole release.
He is drawing deserved recognition for these “prison reform” efforts/
Henry disappeared into social anonymity. He will probably survive (barely) through a network of assistance. He will not go to “college” or receive “grants” from wealthy organizations.
His lasting legacy will lie in his willingness, and determination, to successfully pursue parole eligibility for juvenile lifers—a determination that led to Andrew’s parole release and parole release of at least 15 other juvenile lifers.
I do not participate in prison reform movements. I have addressed civic groups and college classes about the prison experience.
At the urging of a Houston anti-death penalty group in 2007, I went to the Harris County Jail where I met an inmate facing the death penalty. My experiences, as his attorneys hoped, convinced the inmate to accept a life sentence plea deal rather face a death sentence at trial.
The noise and stench of the Harris County Jail stayed in my brain for months. I wrestled with the guilt I felt at convincing a man to plead guilty to life without parole. He will end up like Henry. This reality made me realize that the scar tissue of my 40-year prison experience is too deep to directly engage in prison reforms.
Instead I write and speak about justice. That’s what I do—on Facebook, websites, my employment, and through my podcast, “Justice Delayed.”
But I will express this lasting observation: the Louisiana justice system is incurably corrupt and it will always be unabashedly “color-coded.”