Prisoner says he's been waiting 43 years for fair trial in a racist Louisiana parish; a hearing may be his final chance

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. By Christina Carrega, CNN

(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.

Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle III argued in court documents that the judge should not allow Simmons to have a hearing. "Most of the allegations are the same allegations in a different format that we have heard before. The statements are simply a rehashing of claims made before," Riddle wrote in an email to CNN about the post-conviction motion. Riddle did not address specific allegations.

"Vincent Simmons and I -- are both 68. When you're at the wrong place at the wrong time, when they (the police) are looking for something black like when they go gold hunting, they look for something shiny and Vincent was," Holmes said. "It could have happened to any of us, my sons, my nephews. Nowadays they have to fight harder to bring something like this. The justice system back then was just for the White people."

Simmons' first post-conviction attorney, White, who is now a judge, explained in court documents filed in the 12th Judicial District of the State of Louisiana in 2004 that the discovery file that was legally supposed to get turned over to the defense in 1977, wasn't seen by the defense until 1994.

The twins gave police gruesome details of being held captive in the trunk of Laborde's 1968 Malibu as their rapist, brandishing a knife or gun, took turns raping them. While each twin was raped, Laborde was in the trunk with one of the girls gasping for air for over an hour, according to Sharon Sanders' statements to police.

Karen Sanders said that her assailant ejaculated inside her, but the medical examiner's report reads that "there are no laboratory test results (drugs, microbiological, fingerprints, DNA, saliva, semen, hairs, fibers, etc.) scientifically linking the 3 actors together as a result of intimate sexual contact."

Not turning over evidence that's favorable to the defendant is called a Brady violation and is unequivocal grounds to grant Simmons a new trial, according to court documents and Simmons' attorneys.

Prater said she felt that she was picked to be on the jury as the parish's way of "including Black people" in the criminal justice system.

But, in the jury room, Prater said she felt her opinion didn't matter.

"First of all, I didn't believe that he (Simmons) had did it ... I had mixed feelings the whole time, but I was the only Black juror with 11 Whites who said he was guilty and they said it didn't matter what I had to say," Prater told CNN during a phone interview.

Prater challenged the victims' testimony that one person overpowered three to commit an abduction and rape without putting up a fight. She also questioned why Simmons would ever willingly go into that part of town where the Sanders sisters say they were raped.

Little California Road "in the 1970s was the heart of Klan country where no Black man would venture to go for fear of being killed," the attorneys said in court documents in the 2020 motion.

"That was a White area. Blacks didn't have any business down there, especially, at night," Prater said.

The jury swiftly convicted Simmons on all charges. And when the judge asked the jurors if their verdict was unanimous, Prater admitted defeat because "11 Whites already said he was guilty."

Judge Earl Edwards sentenced Simmons on July 28, 1977, to the maximum term for each charge -- 50 years in prison for each twin -- to be served consecutively.

White told CNN in a phone interview in November, "everything I need to say I put in pleadings and have worked very hard for Vincent."

Family secrets may reveal reasonable doubt

Two weeks after the alleged rape around May 23, 1977, according to statements given to the police by the twins and Laborde, they were at a relative's house when someone noticed he had a scratch on his neck.

Dana Brouillette, a first cousin of Laborde, was there that day. She told CNN over the phone that Laborde's account to the family was "the twins started crying and he (Laborde) proceeds to say they picked up a Black man and during the ride, he said he got into a fight with the man."

Laborde told the family that he was "thrown in the trunk of his car," according to Brouillette affidavit that was submitted with the 2020 motion.

Brouillette said in her affidavit that her mother urged Laborde to go to the police, but he refused.

"They got up to leave and when they walked out, we all look at each other and at the same time said 'well, that's a lie,'" Brouillette said to CNN.

"Neither girl told us that she was sexually assaulted or raped that night," Brouillette said in the affidavit.

Karen Sanders said in the book that she confided in Laborde's sister who then called the police.

"I never knew anything about the case, nothing about this case. I didn't know what evidence they had and couldn't tell you how they could have convicted him (Simmons)," Brouillette said.

Brouillette, who was 15 at the time, said her family is estranged from the Labordes in part because of this case.

"I never said anything before, but I always said that if I was ever asked, I would tell the truth ... The man needs to go home. The lying needs to stop ... I'm just sorry I didn't say something sooner," Brouillette said. She said she felt safe to come forward after moving three hours away because she is "afraid" of Laborde, according to her affidavit.

Bonus filed a petition in November in the 12th Judicial District Court for the Parish of Avoyelles State of Louisiana for a protective order for Simmons' family, Brouillette, Holmes, Prater and other witnesses for the post-conviction motion.

In Brouillette's affidavit she also noted that Karen Sanders "admitted" to her via Facebook messenger that Laborde "raped her."

"Eventually the truth will come out. It just took a long time to come out," Simmons said.

When CNN reached out to Laborde for comment on the case, he used profanity, racial slurs and threatened Simmons, his legal team and his family if Simmons gets released from prison.

"If that God damn n***a gets out for what he did to us, I'm not going after him. I'm going after the ones trying to get him out and the kids and grandkids. Because this is bulls*t," Laborde told CNN over the phone on October 20.

"This s*t happened. It's real. It happened. And I'm not dealing with this no more I'm not looking over my shoulder anymore ... I had enough of this s*t," Laborde said.

Simmons' family's fight for his freedom

Hattie James was in middle school when her brother was facing attempted aggravated rape charges. She did not attend any of the pre-trial hearings or the main trial, but their mother Alzica James did along with some of the older siblings.

But once James got older, she joined the fight to exonerate Simmons by making copies of the court transcripts and mailed them "to any and everybody" outside of Avoyelles Parish for help, she said.

"I always felt like the story didn't add up," James said. "I always knew he did not commit the crime. We knew he didn't do it."

Over the years, Simmons and James mourned the deaths of two brothers, a sister, their mother and father. Simmons was denied release to go to all their funerals, he and James said.

"She (our mother) died without being able to see Vincent free," James said.

Each time a motion was filed, James said, her family got their hopes up and were tragically disappointed when they were denied.

James and Simmons said that with the damning testimony from Brouillette coupled with all the existing information from the previous motions, they are more optimistic.

"There is no evidence today, or presented at trial 44 years ago, that links Vincent Simmons with the alleged crime or alleged victims," Bonus said. "These three young people at the time, to avoid embarrassment over their antics, and with the complicity of the police, prosecutors and judge, placed an innocent man in prison for 44 years, where he remains today."

The prosecutors' case consisted of only the Sanders sisters, Laborde and a police officer.

"Justin (Bonus) is doing everything and anything to figure out the truth. He believes in Vincent just like we do," James said.

Aside from back problems and numbness in his feet, Simmons said he is looking forward to getting a second chance at life where he can do "something successful."

In the meantime, he exercises, reads and talks to the younger inmates.

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong charge that Vincent Simmons initially faced. He was convicted of attempted aggravated rape after earlier charges were downgraded or dropped.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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