It wasn’t murder, rape or domestic violence that landed Bill Winters in prison for life.

 

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Photo by Robin May
Outside of his driver's license, this may be the only surviving photograph of Dennis Winters' younger brother, Bill Winters, who, after a recent appeal's court ruling, will spend the rest of his life in prison for a string of petty crimes, the pettiest his final booking in 2009 over a box of candy swiped in a burglary.

No, for Bill Winters, it was a box of Gobstoppers; that, and Louisiana’s draconian sentencing laws, which encourage career-minded prosecutors to throw the book at even the pettiest of criminals.

Granted, the 54-year-old Lafayette native has had his fair share of run-ins with the law. But none of his charges have been violent.

Based on his criminal record — which includes simple burglary in 1991, possession of cocaine in 1992, simple burglary and possession of cocaine in 1997, unauthorized entry of a place of business in 2003, two simple burglary arrests in 2008 and another in 2009 — the eight-time convicted felon appears less of a threat to society and more like a man fighting drug addiction, health issues and homelessness, a man without the financial means to pull himself from the fray and therefore another mouth to feed in a state with the highest per capita inmate population in the nation.

Winters’ fateful 2009 arrest came on the morning of Sunday, June 7, when he entered the unlocked office of Oncologics Inc. on Coolidge Street. Shortly after, officers with the Lafayette Police Department were alerted by a silent alarm triggered inside the building.

Upon arrival, they noticed a brown bicycle laid against a wooden railing at the entrance of the building, but no signs of forced entry. It was later determined that the locking mechanism to the office door was not working, and the building had been left unlocked over the weekend.

While searching the building, officers heard “rustling in one of the offices” and discovered an inebriated Winters rummaging through one of the desks. The only item found in his possession, however, was a box of Gobstoppers. Later interviews with office personnel revealed that aside from a few pieces of “special dark chocolate,” no other items had been taken during the incident.

“The police found him stumbling around drunk and almost let him go at the scene,” Dennis Winters, Bill’s brother, tells IND Monthly.

When the case, which became known among courthouse insiders as “Gobstoppers V. Crimestoppers,” went to trial, the lead prosecutor, 15th Judicial Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney — son of 16th Judicial District Attorney Phil Haney — pursued a so-called habitual offender conviction, resulting in a 12-year sentence handed down by District Judge Ed Rubin.

For Haney, Rubin’s sentence wasn’t severe enough; for Winters it was too excessive, resulting in two appeals submitted to Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal. The ruling from the Third Circuit, rendered in late July, consolidated the appeals and called for Rubin’s sentence to be vacated, stating that Bill, as an eight-time convicted felon, would be better served spending the rest of his life in prison.

Upon learning of the Third Circuit’s ruling, IND Monthly broke the news to one of Winters’ nine siblings, older brother Dennis.

“What? This makes no sense,” Dennis says during our first telephone interview, the day the Third Circuit called for Bill to spend the rest of his live in prison. “I don’t understand what these people are trying to do. He’s not a violent person. He’s fragile. He wouldn’t hurt anybody, except maybe for himself. I just don’t get how they’re going to give him life for some Gobstopper candy.”

Dennis recalls a conversation at the time of the trial with the young prosecutor, Haney, whom he says made no bones about his intention to make an example of his younger brother.

“[Haney] told me himself, ‘I’ve been dealing with your brother a long time, and I’ll make an example of him, I’ll get him as a habitual offender,’” recalls Dennis. “I begged him, ‘Why you tripping so hard off this?’ My brother had a problem. An addiction. I could see if he was out there trying to hurt people, but this Haney dude is ridiculous; he’s just trying to be like his daddy, and make a name for himself.

If you’re going to set an example, use a murderer, a rapist, someone that has no value for another’s life. Not for no Gobstopper candy though.”

IND Monthly reached out to Haney for this story. Despite his request for an emailed list of questions, which IND Monthly agreed to, the assistant district attorney never responded.

ADA Danny Landry was the prosecutor for two of Bill’s simple burglary convictions in 2003. Landry says Bill Winters is a name well-known around the DA’s office, adding Haney is just one of about seven ADAs to be assigned one of Bill’s felony cases over the years. Haney’s first prosecution of Bill came in 2006 for simple burglary and bail jumping.

Landry says Haney’s hands were tied in the 2009 Gobstoppers case to prosecute Bill as a habitual offender. “Alan [Haney] actually offered him a plea deal for 20 years, but he declined the offer; it went to trial and he was convicted,” says Landry. “The judge sentenced him, and the court of appeals remanded it and instructed the judge that he had no other option but to provide him life under the three strikes and you’re out law.”

Landry points to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling that three strikes and you’re out, or habitual offender laws, do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment as defined by the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Landry says it’s controversial but necessary, adding Louisiana is one of 24 states with such a law on its books. He says the Louisiana Legislature actually refined its habitual offender statute in 2008, hoping to make it a more aggressive crime deterrent by posing stiffer penalties for repeat offenders.

“The law wasn’t being used, so legislators tightened it up after hearing so much from law enforcement and the public frustrated with the open-door policy at our prisons, having to hear victims say, ‘I don’t understand, he keeps breaking into my house, they put him in, they let him out and then he does it again,” Landry argues. “In the case of Mr. Winters, he was given multiple opportunities to enter drug programs. He was given suspended sentences. And he kept committing crimes. He’s a career criminal, and the logic is that at some point the penalty just isn’t severe enough to make a person change. The logic is that a majority of people with substance abuse or mental health issues will grow out of the situation, and say, ‘Hey, I’m 45 years old and I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep going back to prison. I can’t deal with this prison hierarchy with all these younger guys coming in.’ Normally that happens after they serve a six- or 12-year sentence and it works; they change. Or, they end up being habitualized like Mr. Winters.”

The law is controversial, with the other side arguing habitual offender laws are based on flawed logic and deal with crime using a reactive rather than proactive approach to the problem — that the strategy fails to address the core issues, like drugs, mental health and all the other symptoms caused by economic inequality.

G. Paul Marx, head of the 15th Judicial Public Defender’s Office, recalls the Bill Winters’ case and says it’s just one in a long line of life sentences handed down to nonviolent offenders.

Like Dennis Winters, he says prosecutors used Bill to set an example, but that, he adds, is the nature of Louisiana’s habitual offender statute.

“Louisiana’s habitual offender law is very much draconian,” says Marx. “It’s like California’s three strikes and you’re out. In Louisiana, life means life, and we have a lot of lifers on similar sentences, on convictions that aren’t that serious.”

As a result, says Marx, Louisiana leads the U.S. — and world — for its per capita incarceration rate with more than 41,200 people in custody. “Do we treat or just jail people? In Louisiana, we just jail them, and the habitual offender law is one of the main causes. It’s like an atomic fly swatter for people who keep bothering the authorities.”

The law was passed by the state Legislature — the original statute in the early 1990s — but has since evolved to become even stricter, allowing prosecutors to tack on crimes dating back to the first crime a person committed, even if it was decades ago — and it can only be changed with legislative action, says Marx. Until that happens, the state Supreme Court will continue upholding its enforcement.
“It’s a mandatory statute, so judges don’t have much flexibility,” notes Marx. “The basis of the law is to make an example of people, and that’s just what happened to Bill Winters.”

For Dennis Winters, the Third Circuit’s decision represents one of many tough breaks endured by his younger brother. The sad part, he adds, is that Bill’s younger brother, Jim, also was on the same track. With the help of Dennis and his wife, however, Jim was able to turn his life around, overcome addiction, get a job and become a productive member of society.

“Jim was like Bill, in and out of prison until his last stint [on a theft conviction]. He got out after six or seven years and decided he was going to do this, he was going to change. We gave Jim a start, helped him out and he got help through the state and found a good job with [United Way of Acadiana] and has been there four years now doing well,” says Dennis. “With Bill, I don’t know. He needed help, and we just couldn’t afford it at the time to get him the help he needed, or a good lawyer to help him fight those bogus charges. If anything, Jim is proof it can be done, that people can change.”

According to a 2011 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, the number of life sentences imposed in Louisiana, 7 percent of which are for nonviolent crimes, is four times higher than the national average. The report also shows that Louisiana spends an average of $19,888 a year per prisoner, and that’s just for the healthy ones, as the average cost to house and care for an ailing prisoner comes in at about $80,000 annually.

The Bill Winters case is not necessarily the norm among Louisiana’s population of “lifers,” says Burk Foster, a longtime professor of criminal justice who spoke with IND Monthly by phone from his home in Montana. According to Foster, who retired in 2005 after 30 years with UL Lafayette’s Criminal Justice Department — he’s actually returning this fall as a visiting professor — Louisiana has the highest number of lifers in the nation. He says 11.6 percent of Louisiana’s prison population is serving a life sentence, but of those 4,700 inmates, none is eligible for parole, not even the 120 (2.6 percent) whose convictions stem from property crimes. Louisiana’s strict stance on sentencing is not in line with a majority of states, as more and more of the nation is embracing new ideas for approaching criminal justice.

“Mainly what happens for people like [Bill Winters] is the criminal justice system gets tired of them being nuisances or screw-ups,” says Foster. He’s right. During the Winters trial, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft testified that he personally investigated Bill “well over 10 times,” describing him “as a career criminal who victimized a lot of citizens in our city.”

“Prosecutors then file a habitual offender bill, but that is always optional, and it doesn’t have to be prosecuted that way,” argues Foster. “Now, a lot of these defendants do fit the pattern of people who are misfits in society. They typically have addiction problems, or mental health issues, or they’re homeless misfits who never find a place in society. And if they don’t die and live long enough, they’ll end up serving a succession of prison terms over a long period of time and will eventually end up doing life, even though they were never violent and never committed a real serious crime.”

The burden on taxpayers, for one, is reason enough to change the approach, says Foster. For example, Foster says a lifer like Bill Winters, who’s over 50 and beginning to suffer from the health issues wrought by a life of hard living, the bottom line is that the crime is not worth the cost of incarceration.

“This is a real drastic way to deal with the problem,” argues Dennis Winters, a former firefighter who now makes his living as a commercial driver. “In Louisiana you’re spending over $20,000 a year to keep him locked up, while the real problem basically lies somewhere else. Say he lives another 20 years, is it really worth it for the state to spend between $200,000 and $400,000 — even more if he has serious health issues — just so they can keep him incarcerated until he dies of natural causes in prison? My answer is it would be better to deal with him another way, some way that’s outside of prison.”

The Pelican Institute, a New Orleans-based conservative think tank, released a report in July advocating for state lawmakers to take a more aggressive, “radical” approach to sentencing reform. A foundation is there, set in 2010 with the passage of House Bill 1361, which called for ongoing reviews of Louisiana’s sentencing standards to help mold a “sentencing policy that ensures public safety and the imposition of appropriate and just sentences in terms that are clear and transparent and which make the most of the correctional system and community resources.”

One result of Louisiana’s nascent prison reform movement came during this year’s legislative session via Act 389, designed to create an outlet for non-violent drug offenders to forego prison in exchange for drug rehab. The new law will not, however, be extended to non-violent lifers.

This new legislative trend, though a step in the right direction, will be too little-too late for Bill Winters — not to mention his fellow non-violent lifers — as it appears he’ll likely carry out the rest of his days as a ward of Louisiana’s penal system.

True “radical” sentencing reform in Louisiana will prove a tough road, especially for a state with a growing appetite for prison privatization — a more than $180 million industry that has become lucrative for the private and public sectors, putting elected officials like sheriffs and district attorneys into the business of inmates, which ultimately means a bottom line based on convictions.

“My brother Bill has a cocaine addiction. His troubles with the law all happened because he had to feed his habit,” says the youngest of the Winters brothers, Jim. “To get life in prison for the crimes he’s committed, it’s not fair.”

After learning from IND Monthly that Bill’s sentence had been changed from 12 years to life, Dennis Winters says he spoke to his incarcerated brother, who at the time of this story was serving his time at the West Carroll Detention Center in Epps.

“Bill didn’t know nothing about them changing his sentence to life. He didn’t believe it, and still doesn’t, said he never heard from these people, thinks he’s still doing time for only 12 years,” a frustrated Dennis says. “He of all people should’ve known they decided to change his time to life. I don’t understand. How is it Bill is the last to know?”

It’s unclear why Bill Winters hadn’t received word on the Third Circuit ruling from his state-funded attorney, Edward Marquet, a Lafayette defense lawyer assigned through the Louisiana Public Defender Board’s Appellate Project. A message left with a receptionist at the Lafayette office of Marquet’s private practice — he’s also contracted part-time by the 15th Judicial Public Defender’s Office — was not returned.

“I remember right before our mother passed, she asked me to look after and take care of my younger brothers,” says Dennis Winters as he stands outside IND Monthly’s office downtown looking at what might be the family’s only surviving picture of Bill. “I just hope it’s not too late now for me to do that for my little brother.”

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