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.”