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Fate Vincent Winslow

"Fate Vincent Winslow," graphite on paper, 12 3/4″ × 17″. 2022

Fate Vincent Winslow

Fate Vincent Winslow was the target of a racist policing and criminal justice system

Fate Vincent Winslow was unhoused when he was arrested on the evening of Sept. 5. 2008 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Growing up poor, Fate amassed a criminal record akin to his poverty, moving in and out of the criminal justice system since his late teens. In 1985 and again in 1994, he was convicted of simple burglary. In 2004 he was arrested for possession of cocaine.

On that September evening in Shreveport, Winslow was baited into selling an undercover police officer marijuana for $25. Moments later, he split the earnings with a white drug dealer before being arrested and convicted as a habitual offender. He was sentenced to life in prison for the sale of a drug that has now been decriminalized and made legal in many states across the country. Winslow’s white drug dealer, from whom police recovered the marked $20 bill, was never arrested.

How the police and courts are designed to over incarcerate the poor

Winslow’s story raises questions about the ethics of undercover police operations. These practices allow police to legally invent crimes as a way of luring individuals into criminal activity. While some politicians rationalize that these activities help get the “worst of the worst” off the streets, researchers have compiled compelling data that show how these operations are heavily targeted towards Black people in poor communities. One historian notes: “[undercover operations] offered police an easy means to remove a population they saw as latently criminal from the streets and place them behind bars.” 

“[undercover operations] offered police an easy means to remove a population they saw as latently criminal from the streets and place them behind bars.”

The Shreveport officers who arrested Winslow were part of a broader police effort within that community focused on arresting people for drug and sex crimes. When asked why he took part in a drug deal, Winslow said it was because he needed food

Back in the legal system, Winslow was represented by an inadequate public defender who gave a 30-second opening statement about his client at trial. He called no witnesses. He offered no evidence for Winslow’s defense.

He didn’t point out that Winslow was not a drug dealer but only sold in this instance for someone else.

He didn’t point out that the white dealer was found with the marked $20 and never arrested.

He didn’t hire an investigator or inform the court that Winslow was unhoused.

Winslow told the judge his public defender was inadequate, doing “nothing” to help him but the judge declined his request for a new attorney

A broken public defense system

If you’re poor and need legal representation, then you typically have no other option but to rely on a public defender. Four out of five criminal defendants are too poor to afford their own attorney. If high-quality legal representation were provided, this wouldn’t be a problem, but public defenders across the nation are stretched far beyond their capacity. 

In Louisiana, many public defenders have workloads five times higher than any attorney can be expected to adequately defend. A recent study found that Louisiana is short “more than 1,400 full-time public defenders or nearly 80% of the attorneys needed to competently handle its public defense cases.” The pressure on the system comes from various causes. A lack of funding and resources to ensure high-quality defenses is perhaps the greatest. This includes providing sustainable workloads; parity in salaries between defense attorneys and prosecutors; sufficient support staff; and stable government funding. Additionally, the legacy of the “war on drugs” spurred by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton has bloated the criminal justice system with low-level nonviolent offenses (such as Winslow’s case). 

Forced to rely on the broken public defender system, Winslow was found guilty. He was convicted by a racially split jury (ten white jurors versus two Black), which stood as a guilty verdict in Louisiana at the time.

He was convicted by a racially split jury (ten white jurors versus two Black), which stood as a guilty verdict in Louisiana at the time.

Undoing the legacy of the racist 10-2 jury system

Ten years after his trial in 2018, voters approved a constitutional amendment abolishing the state’s racist, non-unanimous verdict system. The system was installed over a century earlier by white supremacist politicians during the post-Reconstruction era. In reaction to the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which allowed Blacks to serve on juries, white supremacist politicians held a constitutional convention in 1898 and enacted an extremist agenda that included the creation of the 10-2 jury system in Louisiana. It met federal nondiscrimination requirements allowing Blacks to serve on juries, while enabling the white majority to convict with or without them. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court finally responded to this racist legacy in a ruling that made non-unanimous verdicts unconstitutional.  But for Winslow, it was a decade too late.

The racist verdict structure cleared the way for Winslow’s prosecutor to seek the harshest possible penalty under Louisiana law. Under one of the most extreme habitual offender laws in the country, the prosecutor sought a life sentence without the possibility for parole because of prior offenses. All 50 states and Washington D.C. have varying degrees of habitual offender laws. Louisiana’s has been in place since 1916 and was made harsher throughout the 80s and 90s in response to the “war on drugs.” Winslow’s prosecutor, Jason Brown, posted a “whites only” segregation sign on one of his personal properties. The man most responsible for Winslow’s unjust sentence was later fired in 2020 for misconduct in a murder trial.

Winslow appealed his sentence, arguing that it was excessive given the nature of the crime, and that the non-unanimous jury conviction was unconstitutional. The appeal was rejected, and the sentence was affirmed by the appeal’s court. Wiinslow spent the next twelve years of his life at the Angola maximum-security prison, a former slave plantation.

With no access to justice, Fate found hope in the private sector

In 2019 lawyers at the Innocence Project came across Winslow’s case and decided to provide legal support. During that year, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in a different case that a defendant’s sentence could be revisited if they had inadequate counsel. Winslow’s new attorneys used this decision to frame an “ineffective assistance of counsel” claim, which the district attorney and judge supported. That December, at the age of 53, Winslow walked out of Angola a free man, with the court granting the post-conviction application and a new sentence of 12 years with credit for time served. 

In May of 2021, just a few months after he was freed, Winslow was murdered.

Winslow’s story illuminates a devastating reality of structural poverty and racism in the United States. Those who knew him described his good natured, positive, and upbeat spirit. But systems of power in America are cruel to poor Black people. These systems allowed various actors to unjustly incarcerate, convict, and take the last years of his life away.

Artwork and essay by Joe Ward, published on April 8, 2023

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