This prisoner says he's been waiting 43 years for a fair trial in a racist Louisiana parish. A hearing may be his final chance
Updated 12:56 PM ET, Tue January 5, 2021
(CNN)Vincent Simmons has been fighting for 43 years to overturn a conviction that has netted him a 100-year sentence for a crime he says he did not commit.
A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday to recuse the Avoyelles Parish prosecutors from the case.
It looked to be the last chance for Simmons, 68, to receive a fair trial, possibly in a new jurisdiction, his attorneys say. But that hearing was canceled without warning or explanation, an attorney for Simmons says, meaning Simmons' team would have to wait to present what they described as new testimony and new evidence that, they hope, will finally exonerate their client. The rescheduled hearing has been set for February 17.
"I am innocent," he immediately tells CNN with a steady and confident tone on the phone. "It's been a hell of a journey here in prison. I cannot really tell you all of what I been through here, but it's been a nightmare."
In 1977, it took just minutes for a jury of 11 White men and one Black woman to convict Simmons. Simmons was 25 when he was convicted of the attempted sexual assault of 14-year-old twin sisters Karen and Sharon Sanders. But conflicting accounts of what happened on Little California Road and the way his trial unfolded haunt the small Louisiana parish, where 66% of its community is White and 29% is Black, and Black residents say that, decades later, the racism of their White neighbors continues to distort the concept of justice.
Attorneys, local activists and family members of Simmons say he was wrongly convicted. Some Black residents in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, say his case is reflective of racism and a failed justice system -- ailments that have plagued the area for generations. But his accusers have not wavered in their allegations or come forward to change their accounts.
"This s*t happened. It's real. It happened," the twins' first cousin and eye-and-ear witness, Keith Laborde, told CNN.
Neither Laborde, who was 18 at the time, nor either Sanders sister identified Simmons by name as the suspect to the police, but they said his full name at the 1977 trial.
Karen Sanders published a book in 2005 called "Raped Beyond a Shadow of Doubt" about the incident and its aftermath. The Sanders sisters were both featured in the 1999 documentary "Shadows of Doubt: State Vs. 85188 Vincent Simmons." CNN made multiple attempts to reach the twins via phone and email, but none were successful.
Justin Bonus, an attorney for Simmons, said this is "a story you might hear when speaking of Jim Crow and the 'rape myth' involving Black men and White women that resulted in so many tragic lynchings and wrongful convictions."
Data reveal that a Black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a White sexual assault convict, according to a 2017 report from the National Registry of Exonerations. "The major cause for this huge racial disparity appears to be the high danger of mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims in violent crimes with black assailants," the report said.
Over the course of four decades, attorneys Laurie White and Robert Hjortsburg, have filed post-conviction motions in the Avoyelles Parish's justice system. They have separately filed post-conviction motions with new witnesses and a file that only was turned over to the defense nearly 20 years after the 1977 trial. One piece of physical evidence that was in the file was taken two weeks after the rape and didn't link the twins to Simmons, according to the medical examiner's report.
Simmons' attorneys and supporters said he was at a bar on May 9, 1977 around 9pm getting in a fight and was not on the other side of Avoyelles Parish kidnapping three White relatives and attempting to rape two of them.
Laborde testified at the trial that he got into a fight with a Black man at a 7-11 and after the altercation calmed down, the Black man asked to get a ride home and he agreed. The Black man sat in the backseat and the twins sat up front with him. At some point, Laborde said the Black man took out a gun and ordered him to stop the car, get out and get in the trunk.
The Sanders twins testified that they were separately raped by a Black man that they later described for the jury as Simmons.
An affidavit from a key witness -- a relative of the twins -- gives a different account of what happened on Little California Road in Marksville, Louisiana, in 1977, his attorneys said. Along with a statement from the lone Black juror and the missing discovery file that was not turned over to Simmons' trial attorney, they could reveal how racial bias tainted the jury pool and courtroom proceedings, Bonus said.
"A second chance is appropriate for me because they didn't have anything on me the first time, so I am entitled to a second chance. ... I just want justice and the truth to prevail," Simmons told CNN.
What happened on May 9, 1977
In May of 1977, Simmons, the fifth child in a family of 12 brothers and sisters, made the trek from Texas to his hometown of Mansura, Louisiana, to spend time with his family for Mother's Day. Simmons often traveled back home to see his family.
On May 9, the Monday night after Mother's Day, Simmons and his three friends went to a local bar where Simmons got into a fight, according to Pam Jones' alibi testimony. The police were called, but Simmons wasn't arrested. He went back to Texas and would return weeks later. But that skirmish was one of many over the course of his youth.
One of his younger sisters, Hattie James, told CNN that her brother wasn't a stranger to the local police because he was a fighter and got into a lot of arguments with the police.
Between the ages of 16 and 19, Simmons was arrested in Louisiana for a variety of crimes, but he only served 15 months in jail for a simple burglary charge, according to his criminal history.
Two weeks after Mother's Day, Simmons would return to Mansura and on May 23, 1977, he would be arrested five miles away from his family's home.
"My life, basically, I was young, and I was wild," Simmons told CNN during a phone interview from Louisiana State Penitentiary. "I was doing stupid things, but not nothing that would want to cause anyone to want to frame me for a crime I didn't commit."
All of Vincent's legal battles and what led him to the two attorneys
After watching the 1998 award-winning documentary, "The Farm: Angola, USA" in 2017, which profiled Simmons and five other inmates in Louisiana State Penitentiary, Bonus wanted to get involved with Simmons' case. The New York-based attorney has a passion for righting wrongs in the criminal justice system and is working on four other post-conviction cases for members of Families and Friends of the Wrongfully Convicted, a grassroots advocacy group, whose mission is to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and support policies to prevent them.
By January 2020, Bonus joined Simmons' legal team, pro bono, and their re-investigation began with a local private investigator and other resources.
Bonus and local attorney Ed Larvadain combed through 4,000-plus pages of Simmons' trial and previous post-conviction motions.
The trial was a "small town secret" and the Black community was "kept in the dark about the case even in the newspaper until they sent him to prison" for 100 years, Rev. Allen Holmes, a local civil rights activist, told CNN.
"What they did in Simmons' case, and some of the things that occurred in that case, it's unbelievable," Holmes, a former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said.
Simmons was arrested, charged, put on trial and sentenced in less than 90 days.
Holmes said Simmons' case is a classic example of systemic racism where a Black person can get convicted by the word of a White person without further proof. Holmes said the prosecutor called a police officer to discredit Simmons' three witnesses that placed him in a bar during the time frame of the crime.