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Interview: Jodie Sinclair on Her New Book, “Love Behind Bars”

Jodie Sinclair is the co-author of two nationally published non-fiction books and the author of a recently released memoir about her 25-year fight to free her husband from prison after a wrongful conviction, “Love Behind Bars: The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife.” She also co-authored her husband’s autobiography, “A Life in the Balance: The Billy Wayne Sinclair Story,” which was written while he was still in prison. She is a former TV news reporter with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

How did you meet your husband?

I lived in upscale neighborhoods growing up. My family belonged to country clubs. I went to an elite private school. But I didn’t meet my husband at a society event. I met him in 1981 at the Death House at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. When Angola’s warden refused to let us marry a year later, I married Billy by proxy in Texas.    

There were no bells or whistles at our wedding. My brother-in-law and I went to the courthouse in downtown Houston with notarized documents Billy had sent to me, swearing he wanted to marry me and designating my brother-in-law as his stand-in. A courthouse official handed me some documents that made me Billy’s wife when I signed them. That afternoon, I called a prison administrator asking her to tell Billy that I had taken care of an important legal matter he had entrusted to me.

A member of Louisiana’s Pardon Board challenged our marriage, asking the state’s Attorney General if Louisiana had to recognize a marriage based on a law dating back to Texas frontier days. He told her states are legally bound to recognize each other’s valid laws. 

 

Did you initially think he was guilty of the murder he was charged with? When and why did you begin to have doubts?

When I first saw Billy in the Death House in 1981, I thought he was a guard on his day off, there to assist the warden. I was a TV news reporter covering an upcoming execution along with a TV crew from another station. Billy had on perfectly pressed denim jeans and a denim jacket. The warden told me he was a national award-winning inmate writer for the prison’s magazine, the first uncensored publication of its kind in the U.S. He was there in case I had questions about Angola’s Death Row. In 1972, he was waiting to be executed when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty nationwide, changing his death sentence to life in prison.

I ordered archived articles about him from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. They described a killer who deliberately shot his victim down in cold blood inside a store he tried to rob and calmly walked out to his getaway car. But the Corrections Department considered him so trustworthy that it was sending him with an older, unarmed guard around Louisiana to warn schoolchildren about breaking the law. Some were overnight trips. Billy, and the inmate sent with him, could easily have jumped the guard, and escaped. With the Corrections Department Secretary and numerous top-ranking prison officials vouching for Billy’s rehabilitation to such an extraordinary degree, I decided to trust him.

 

How did prosecutors and police skew the evidence against Billy?

In 1966, the prosecutor in Billy’s case told the jury that Billy shot the store clerk in the chest inside the convenience store during the robbery attempt. He used perjured testimony to convict him of felony murder, a death penalty crime. To get the death penalty under Louisiana law, the prosecutor had to show Billy shot and killed the clerk with a specific intent to murder him, or that he killed his victim during the commission, or attempted commission, of a robbery.

One of the witnesses who committed perjury was a former state police officer who happened to be in the store. He said Billy shot the clerk in the chest and calmly walked out the door. The second witness was the officer’s wife, who was waiting in a car for her husband. She also said she saw Billy calmly walking to his getaway car. Their accounts convicted him of felony murder.

Four witnesses told a radically different story in sworn statements to the police. They said the clerk rushed Billy and chased him out of the store across the parking lot. One said the clerk was waving a broom above his head. But they never testified because Billy’s defense lawyer was never told about them. Their statements prove Billy had abandoned the robbery attempt and that he fired a wild shot over his shoulder as he was running away. Their testimony would have undercut the prosecutor’s claims. The prosecutor also told the jury the fatal bullet hit the clerk in the chest. It was an outright lie. It hit him under the arm as he was holding the broom in the air. Legal experts told me if the suppressed witnesses been allowed to testify, the jury could have returned a manslaughter verdict or a “guilty without capital punishment” verdict.

In late 1979, when his mother went to the Pardon Board to ask the chairman why Louisiana’s governor denied clemency for Billy even though the board had unanimously recommended it, Billy learned what had happened at his trial in 1966. The Chairman said the Board knew Billy’s crime wasn’t a cold-blooded murder. An official police report with four statements in his file was proof. But the prosecutor had sealed it.

As his mother left, she asked a clerk for copies of all the documents in her son’s file. A pardon board lawyer tried to stop her as she was leaving with them under her arm. But she ran out of the building and jumped into a waiting car. The file also contained scores of letters against Billy’s release, some signed by politically powerful opponents. Shocking illegal acts against Billy over the 25 years I tried to free him were routine.

 

Was the news coverage about his case fair, or did most reporters go along with the official narrative?

Until Billy became an award-winning writer for The Angolite, there were no favorable reports about him. From 1979 to 1986 as the magazine’s co-editor, he won some of the highest national journalism honors for his articles, including The George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Special Interest Journalism. In 1986, he was the whistleblower in a pardons for sale scam at Angola. I wore a wire to help the FBI based on his information. When he wasn’t released like inmates who bought pardons, reporters began asking questions about his treatment.

Some reporters in the local media knew the prosecution had used perjured testimony and suppressed favorable witnesses at Billy’s trial. But even when the police Offense Report was uncovered in 1979, revealing the perjured testimony and suppressed witnesses, it got scant media attention. An Associated Press reporter who pointed to unfairness in Billy’s case received threatening telephone messages.

The social status of Billy’s victim, coupled with the perjured testimony at Billy’s trial, influenced the media’s coverage of Billy. His victim was a popular high school football player on a team in the mid-1950s that would later be voted as the “greatest high school football team in Louisiana history.” Team members, or people associated with them, were in powerful positions in Baton Rouge’s education system, police department, state police, the legislature, the district attorney’s office, the religious community, and even the local media. One said Billy would have fared better if he had killed the city’s mayor rather than one of those high school football players. This powerful network of people demanded the death penalty for Billy in 1966. They pressured four prominent attorneys to withdraw from his case to ensure he would get a death sentence.

 

What was the turning point in gaining his freedom?

By 2004, the battle to free Billy was desperate. The muscles in his eyelids were paralyzed. Other inmates taped his eyelids up every morning with Band-Aids so he could see. Trips to Charity Hospital in New Orleans confirmed the seriousness of his condition and the heart murmur he had developed. By then, I had been fighting for his release for 23 years.

I turned to the most powerful African American legislator in Louisiana. Senator Charles Jones was Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s floor leader. He also had a successful legal practice. He agreed to represent Billy at his 2006 parole board hearing. With Senator Jones, we finally escaped the years-long, behind-the-scenes influence of the victim’s family and friends. 

 

How much money did it cost for attorneys? Is there any way he could have gained his freedom if you didn’t have some financial resources?