Louisiana state lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday that will provide parole eligibility to some of the people who were told they would have a chance at release after 10 years and six months of good behavior — but wound up stuck facing true life sentences after the state changed the rules in the 1970s.
Most of these so-called “10/6 lifers” have now been in prison for at least 50 years. The overwhelming majority are Black. Some were wrongfully convicted and others pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit, opting to spend what they believed would be 10-and-a-half years in prison rather than risk the death penalty before an all-white jury.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Franklin Foil (R), will only provide parole eligibility to 10/6 lifers who pleaded guilty, excluding those who went to trial and were convicted. Fewer than 20 people will be affected by Foil’s bill and about 30 will be left behind, estimated Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the Parole Project, a nonprofit that works to free rehabilitated people who have been incarcerated for 20 or more years.
Foil said in a phone call that he limited his bill to people who pleaded guilty because he felt that those individuals had made a deal with the state and the state had failed to uphold its end of the agreement. He conceded that some of the people who went to trial may have been wrongfully convicted. It was widely understood that Black defendants in Louisiana at the time did not stand a chance of receiving a fair trial.
A separate bill, introduced by state Sen. Regina Barrow (D), which would have provided parole eligibility to all 10/6 lifers, did not receive enough support to move forward. Foil’s bill is expected to be signed into law by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).
“We would have preferred a solution that included relief for all 10/6 lifers. But we are encouraged that some of these men may not die in prison,” Hundley told HuffPost.
Until 1973, life sentences in Louisiana came with the opportunity for release after 10 years and six months. “Everyone here was aware of it. It was routine,” Hilton Butler, an associate warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, told the prison’s newspaper, The Angolite, in 1980. “If a lifer kept his nose clean, he got out of prison in 10½ years. I’d say almost 99% of all the lifers got out,” Butler said.
That changed in 1973, after the Supreme Court temporarily got rid of the death penalty. With capital punishment no longer an option, Louisiana lawmakers decided their life sentences needed to be harsher. First the state legislature required life sentences for murder to carry a 20-year minimum in prison, which was later increased to 40 years. In 1979, lawmakers took away parole eligibility for anyone with a life sentence.
As a result, people who were sentenced to life before 1973 watched their 10-and-a-half year prison term expand to the rest of their natural life. Over time, the 10/6 lifers were forgotten by most on the outside, but Hundley got to know several while he was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. There, he slept in the bunk bed above a 10/6 lifer named Lester Pearson, who got to prison in 1965, more than 16 years before Hundley was born.
In 2016, Hundley became the first juvenile lifer in Louisiana to get out of prison as a result of Montgomery v. Louisiana, the landmark Supreme Court decision which made retroactive an earlier prohibition on mandatory life sentences for people who commit their crime before they are 18 years old. Hundley resolved to help Pearson and the rest of the 10/6 lifers get the same second chance he was granted.
In 2020, Louisiana elected Jason Williams, a former criminal defense lawyer and city councilman, as Orleans Parish district attorney. Williams ran on a progressive platform and promised to review old cases that involved prosecutorial misconduct and unfairly harsh sentences. Hundley told Williams’ office about the 10/6 lifers, and the prosecutor committed to reviewing each of the 18 cases in his jurisdiction.
As a result, several 10/6 lifers have been resentenced to time served and are now free. Last year, HuffPost met with them shortly after they left Angola. They described the joy of leaving the prison they expected to die in — and the challenges of adjusting to a world that has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.
“This is just something you can’t describe in words. Words can’t fit it,” Louis Mitchell, who was resentenced to time served last year, said in a phone call during the car ride away from Angola. “You look back at so many that deserve an opportunity like this and can’t get it. So you got bittersweet and happiness together. So you’re almost sitting in a conglomeration of feelings.”
Mitchell, who is Black, was accused in 1966 of raping two white women, including one who was his girlfriend at the time. A medical examination of his girlfriend did “not reveal any evidence of recent trauma,” and the other woman did not identify Mitchell as the perpetrator, even when police specifically asked if he was the attacker. Mitchell, who has always maintained his innocence, wanted to fight the charges, but prosecutors warned his lawyer that if the case went to trial, he would likely face execution.
Most of the 10/6 lifers who were convicted outside of Orleans Parish and therefore don’t benefit from Williams’ resentencing effort have remained stranded. Once signed into law, the bill passed on Thursday will make some of them eligible to go before a parole board, which can grant their release. But the bill still leaves many behind.
Regardless of guilt or innocence, the population in question consists of elderly individuals who have already spent decades in prison longer than they were told to expect.
“We will continue to advocate for those whose original sentences should have had them home decades ago,” Hundley said. “There is zero benefit to public safety for any of these individuals to remain incarcerated.”