Exclusive: Fate Winslow, sentenced to life in prison for selling $20 worth of pot, is released after serving 12 years
Twelve years after being sentenced to life for selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop, Fate Vincent Winslow will walk out of Louisiana State Penitentiary on Wednesday a free man. “Today is a day of redemption,” the 53-year-old wrote to Yahoo News following his resentencing hearing on Tuesday. “I get my freedom back, I get my life back. There are no words that can really explain my feelings right now.”
Winslow’s release comes through the work of the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) and specifically Jee Park, its executive director, who felt confident that there was a path to freedom for Winslow as soon as she found his case. “You read the transcript of his trial and you’re just horrified about what happened,” Park told Yahoo News. “[His attorney] doesn’t object when he gets sentenced to life. He doesn’t file a motion to reconsider … he doesn’t do anything. He just says, ‘Sorry, you got a guilty verdict, you’re going to prison for the rest of your life.’”
On behalf of Winslow, IPNO filed an application for post-conviction relief to Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart in June 2019, arguing that Winslow was not given the right to a fair trial. His defense attorney, Alex Rubenstein (whom I interviewed for a 2015 Daily Beast story on Winslow — which, coincidentally, led Park to his case), hardly mentioned Winslow by name in the trial. He gave an opening statement 30 seconds long, called no witnesses and presented no evidence.
Park said that had Rubenstein emphasized that Winslow was homeless at the time of arrest, or that he was merely acting as a “runner” for a white dealer who — despite pocketing the majority of money — was never arrested, the jury might have ruled differently. Had Rubenstein, then a public defender, flagged to the judge that Winslow’s three prior convictions were all for nonviolent offenses, the judge might have decided that a life sentence was excessive.
“He gave no individualized factors about Fate that would give the judge reason to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence,” Park said, referring to Louisiana’s notoriously harsh habitual offender law. “Judges can do that under the right circumstances, but the lawyer has to do the work — present the evidence. He did none of that.”
When I spoke to Rubenstein for the 2015 story in the Daily Beast, I was surprised by his remarks about the case. “He was distributing marijuana. I can’t really be sympathetic,” Rubenstein told me, suggesting that Winslow was unworthy of a defense. In documents from the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization that first highlighted the case in a 2013 report, Winslow described standing up in court and imploring the judge for a new attorney, saying Rubenstein was doing “nothing” to help him. The judge denied his request.
Rubenstein, who could not be reached by Yahoo News for comment on the resentencing, didn’t remember Winslow asking for a new attorney, and disagreed that his defense was lacking. Instead, he claimed the problem was Winslow himself, a Black man from an underprivileged neighborhood who, like many of the other people Rubenstein represented, was difficult to defend. “You have to be realistic about it, we don’t have the best clientele in the world,” Rubenstein said in 2015. “I’m not saying they’re all losers — we win some cases, we try our best — but sometimes there just isn’t anything there.”
Park begs to differ. She describes the circumstances surrounding Winslow’s case as harrowing. Raised in poverty, in and out of homelessness and struggling with addiction, Winslow had long been disqualified by his prior felonies — two simple burglaries and one possession of cocaine — from applying for public assistance of any kind, including food stamps. The $5 that police found in his pocket from the $20 sale of weed, he told them, was money he planned to use for food.
On top of these factors, views on marijuana were already changing at the time of his arrest. By 2008, the drug that sent him to prison for life had already been decriminalized or legalized for medical use in 15 states. Four years into his sentence, Colorado and Washington passed laws allowing the recreational use of the drug. Now, in 2020, marijuana is medically legal in 35 states and recreationally in 15.
In the years since his trial, Winslow has become a symbol for what activists see as a broken criminal justice system. His name has been invoked on social media not only during mentions of the booming cannabis industry — which is projected to reach $35 billion in sales by 2025 — but when white men and women are sentenced to a fraction of the time for much more serious crimes. His case has been highlighted in recent years by the New York Times, the Yale Law Journal Forum and progressive lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, commits bank and tax fraud and gets 47 months. A homeless man, Fate Winslow, helped sell $20 of pot and got life in prison,” the Massachusetts Democrat tweeted in March 2019. “The words above the Supreme Court say ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ — when will we start acting like it?”
Winslow, writing to Yahoo News from his final day in what’s generally recognized as one of the most notorious prisons in the U.S. — the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as “Angola” for the plantation on which it was built — says he always believed his sentence was unduly severe. “Yes, I did serve 12 years of my life for marijuana, a drug that is now legal for recreational and medicinal use,” he wrote to Yahoo News. “I never did feel like I deserved all that time for something like that.”
Park agrees. “It’s completely insane that he [was] in there for a life sentence. Fine, he has a prior criminal record, but it's all nonviolent,” she said. “The facts of this particular case are crazy. Even if you gave the benefit of the doubt to the officer that it happened exactly as he tells it, it’s still so sympathetic. And Fate himself is such a humble, gentle person. You meet him and you think, how can this human being die in prison?”
Winslow said he’s thanking God for his newfound freedom, and looking forward to reuniting with his daughter Faith, who has set up a GoFundMe to help get him back on his feet. In a statement provided to IPNO, Faith expressed optimism about the future. “My dad and I got closer while he was imprisoned. Even though he was locked up, he was there for me when I needed him,” she said. “He deserves a second chance and I am so glad he is getting one.”
He seems equally excited about the impending reunion. “Upon my release, I just want to go get my kids and grandkids and try to make some memories with the time that I have left on this earth with them,” Winslow wrote to Yahoo News. “Twelve years are gone that I can never get back, but today redemption has come.”
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