Life in Prison For 2 Dime Bags Because He Was Black and Poor
Fate Vincent Winslow got caught up in a sting during which he was arrested for selling an officer two dime bags of cannabis.
Can you imagine life in prison for selling two dime bags of weed? Well, unfortunately jurors sentenced Fate Vincent Winslow to just that.
What’s more, this wasn’t just a crime of ‘drugs’ – and when it comes to American cannabis politics, it hardly ever is. Most agree, when they hear Winslow’s case, that it boils down to race. Louisiana has a history of judicial bias against black men.
Winslow Was Living on the Streets
At the time of arrest, Winslow was living on the streets, and looking for food. An undercover cop in plain clothes by the name of Officer Jerry Alkire came up to Winslow to ask him for, “A girl and some weed”. Alkire was specifically looking to catch out sex workers and johns, as this area was infamous for this activity.
After Winslow and Alkire agreed on the price – $20 for two dime bags and $5 delivery fee – Winslow went off to get the weed. When he came back, Alkire paid him. He ascertained that the contents of the bag were in fact weed. Sergeant Ricky Scroggins, who had been waiting in a vehicle nearby listening through a bug on Alkire, then came over to make the arrest.
Here’s the kicker – there was another man present who didn’t face any jail time for the sale. According to murky reporting, police found $20 on ‘Perdue’, the white man beside Winslow, and only $5 on Winslow. And according to Winslow, this $5 was for food.
Justice is Not Served in the Boggling Case of Fate Winslow
There are details of the case that remain unclear. The bills found on ‘Perdue’ and Winslow were both marked, but there was some obscurity about how much was found on each person. Though Winslow agrees that he only received $5, and original testimonies confirm this, in court the record shows Alkire’s confusion. Transcripts reveal that Alkire originally said he found $11 and eventually he changed his mind to $5.
Both officers’ testimonials were vague. But worse yet, Rubenstein, Winslow’s attorney, didn’t bring forward any witnesses. He barely defended Winslow at all. In fact, Winslow says, “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”. Unfortunately, the judge ignored Winslow’s motion. Winslow couldn’t afford to hire another attorney; the state assigned Rubenstein.
The jury took less than an hour to decide on a verdict over the dime bags. Two of the ten jurors voted innocent, but Winslow was convicted anyway. Louisiana law does not require a unanimous jury.
What seems unfortunate, however, is that the jurors didn’t realize what they were voting on. And this was Winslow’s third convicted felony, which let the prosecution ask for life in prison. Sadly, that’s what Winslow received.
Jurors Were Not Told They Were Convicting For Life
The jurors admit they didn’t know Winslow’s proposed sentence. Only one juror spoke out about the case afterwards. The juror, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “The jury wasn’t told. I was instructed whether or not to convict on this interaction. It was, what it was. It was very clear, there was no doubt” in regards to his guilt. But she went on to say, “I do remember it was a very small amount of marijuana. It was ridiculously small”. Yeah, about two dime bags kind of small.
More worryingly, she said, “Whoever his lawyer was didn’t make any case for him. In my mind I thought… why are we doing this for such a small amount? I think it’s really an imbalance of the punishment fitting the crime”. She remembers feeling surprised to find out she had helped to sentence Winslow to life in prison for such a minuscule, “petty crime”.
How can jurors accurately come to a verdict if they’re not aware of what they’re voting for? That he sold pot is indisputable. But his life sentence reveals a corrupt and racially-biased legal system.
Mandatory Sentencing Law and Racial Prejudice
Once more this case uncovers racial injustice. Angela Davis, author of Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor, is skeptical of the concept of mandatory minimums. These convictions only occur when prosecutors demand them, and this tends to put people of colour at a disadvantage. Of the Winslow case she said, “The charging decisions are made behind closed doors in the prosecutor’s office; they don’t have to explain to a judge—or to anyone—why they chose to prosecute one person under a mandatory sentencing law and not another. There’s no transparency… which results in a prosecutor with this tremendous power and almost no accountability”.
As a result, Perdue walked free while Winslow stayed in prison. Even Winslow’s attorney clearly didn’t have Winslow’s best interest at heart: “He was distributing marijuana. I can’t really be sympathetic”. Not all judges agree with this, though. In Landon Thompson’s case, also sentenced to life but for cocaine, Judge R. Spencer said, “I think a life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous. It is a travesty. 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”. Once again, Thompson was a black American man. The list goes on.
Louisiana’s Racist History Continues to Haunt
Given the atmosphere in Louisiana, this is unsurprising. According to the Daily Beast, African Americans “are 23 times more likely to be sentenced to life for a nonviolent crime in Louisiana”. Furthermore, they’re 3.73 times more likely to face arrest for cannabis ‘crimes’. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told—but herein lies the trap. People make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. Most of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room”.
And the fact is, if you’re white, you’re much more likely to get away with petty crime than people of colour. As a growing number of states are legalizing cannabis, the racial disparities are becoming more apparent than ever. Moreover, the ridiculousness of arresting someone over a plant that is now legal in three nations, for medical purposes in 33 states, and may be rescheduled internationally as well is becoming more and more obvious. The state needs to give these innocent men reparation.