A 53-year-old Louisiana man who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer has been released after twelve years. Fate Winslow was slapped with a life sentence in 2008 for being a multiple offender, WWL-TV reported.
“I was so happy to get out,” he told the news outlet. “A life sentence for two bags of weed? I never thought something like that could happen.”
Winslow, who was a homeless man in Shreveport at the time of his conviction, previously served time for three non-violent crimes including two burglaries when he was 17 and 27, and cocaine possession when he was 37. He was unarmed during both burglaries.
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Winslow’s incarceration for selling such a small amount of marijuana particularly garnered nationwide attention mainly because of the severity of the sentence and the circumstances surrounding his case, with Rolling Stone casting a spotlight on him in 2017.
Per the magazine, Winslow – then homeless – was approached by an undercover police officer who asked for his help in purchasing two dime bags of weed at $10 each. Winslow agreed to make the purchase and the cop offered him $25, with the $5 being compensation for his services.
“I wasn’t lookin to sell drugs. But when you homeless, every dollar counts [sic],” he wrote from prison. Though he was arrested and subsequently convicted, the white dealer who sold the drugs to him wasn’t apprehended despite the fact that officers found the marked $20 bill in his possession. “This is the world we live in,” he wrote. “The dealer sold the weed and gave me 5 dollars… now I got life.”
“Rolling Stone magazine did articles about me,” he told WWL-TV. “I was in a bunch of other articles and two documentaries. The other inmates could never believe it. They always said, ‘You’re doing life for a bag of weed?’”
The Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) took on Winslow’s case and Jee Park, the lead attorney and executive director of the organization, managed to successfully appeal and have her client re-sentenced to time served based on ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial.
“[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,’” Park told Yahoo News. “He gave no individualized factors about Fate that would give the judge reason to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence. Judges can do that under the right circumstances, but the lawyer has to do the work — present the evidence. He did none of that.”
She also told WWL-TV: “There are hundreds of individuals serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes in Louisiana. He received an obscenely excessive sentence given his life circumstances and crime, and today, we are correcting that unconstitutional, inhumane sentence.”
Winslow’s case has also been frequently referenced on social media to highlight how the criminal justice system unfairly targets people of color and hits them with heavy sentences for minor offenses while White people receive shorter jail time for more serious crimes.
In a 2019 tweet to register her displeasure with the number of years Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to, Sen. Elizabeth Warren cited Winslow’s incarceration.
“Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, commits bank and tax fraud and gets 47 months,” she tweeted. “A homeless man, Fate Winslow, helped sell $20 of pot and got life in prison. The words above the Supreme Court say ‘Equal Justice Under Law’—when will we start acting like it?”
What made his case also peculiar was the fact that 15 states in the country had already decriminalized or legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes at the time of his 2008 conviction, Yahoo News reported. The drug can now be used and taken for medicinal purposes in 35 states, while 15 have also legalized it for recreational use.
“Yes, I did serve 12 years of my life for marijuana, a drug that is now legal for recreational and medicinal use,” he told the news outlet. “I never did feel like I deserved all that time for something like that.”
A GoFundMe has been set up by Winslow’s daughter to raise funds to help him get back on his feet. “My dad and I got closer while he was imprisoned. Even though he was locked up, he was there for me when I needed him,” she told WWL-TV. “I cannot wait to have my dad back fully in my life. Twelve years is a long time. Too long. He deserves a second chance and I am so glad he is getting one.”