When A Prison Sentence Of 10 Years And 6 Months Turns Into Forever
Leroy Grippen thought he was going to prison for 10 years and six months. That’s what his lawyer told him, and that’s how it went. When you were sentenced to life in Louisiana, it didn’t really mean life in prison. With good behavior, life sentences were almost always commuted after 10 years and six months.
Besides, it’s not as if Grippen had much of a choice. It was 1970, and as a young Black man facing charges of armed robbery and aggravated rape in the South, he would have almost certainly faced an all-white jury that could convict him and sentence him to death by electrocution.
So Grippen, who had just turned 23, did what his lawyer told him to do. He took the plea deal and went to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. There, he started counting down the days until he expected to walk free — sometime in the summer of 1981.
That day didn’t come until Oct. 5, 2021. By then he was 73 and had spent nearly 70% of his life in prison.
By the time the summer of 1981 rolled around, Louisiana had changed the rules. The understanding that people wouldn’t really spend life in prison, which was common in many states at the time, had been supplanted by new “tough on crime” laws. Grippen was abandoned in prison, forgotten along with the rest of the so-called 10/6 lifers.
There is no record of how many of the 10/6 lifers died in prison. Of roughly 65 who are still alive, the overwhelming majority are Black. Now, after spending decades longer in prison than they were told they would, some of them are finally getting out.
Coming home from prison is supposed to be a joyous celebration. What’s your first meal going to be, people ask. What are you most excited for? Wasn’t it nice to sleep in a bed in your own room? Grippen was happy to be out of prison, and he was grateful to the people who had made it happen. He had started to give up hope of ever leaving Angola and even contemplated suicide. But he didn’t exactly feel free, either.
The family members he was close to before he got locked up are now dead. He has no friends except those he made in prison. After getting out, Grippen was surprised to learn he was required to register as a sex offender. Louisiana’s sex offender registry didn’t exist when he was arrested — this was yet another punishment tacked on to his sentence years later.
“I still feel like they got me locked down,” Grippen, one of the six 10/6ers I met with in Louisiana this fall, said in a November interview. “I ain’t know I was gonna feel this way, but I do. I feel sometimes like I’m in a world all by myself. I don’t know nobody. I don’t know where to go.”
The practice of releasing people with life sentences after ten years was implemented informally by Henry Fuqua, Angola’s warden from 1916 to 1924, who went on to become the state’s governor. It was a way to save money, but “his idea was that this was kind of a contract — that good behavior and following what’s expected of you should result in release,” said Reiko Hillyer, a historian who is writing a book about how the prison system has become more harsh over time.
Louisiana’s 10½-year minimum for life sentences, which was enshrined into law in 1926, wasn’t uniquely lenient. “It was common in every state, including the federal system, that people who were sentenced to life wouldn’t serve more than 15 years,” Hillyer said.
“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.
But in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted the death penalty. No longer able to sentence people to death, Louisiana decided life sentences needed to be more punitive. In 1973, the state legislature required life sentences for murder to carry a 20-year minimum before parole eligibility. In 1976, the legislature amended the minimum to 40 years. In 1979, lawmakers abolished parole eligibility for anyone with a life sentence.
With the minimum sentences for life terms being lengthened and then eliminated, the culture became more punitive, and commutations for 10/6 lifers abruptly vanished. Some were even asked to hand over their old rap sheets — which noted the exact date at which they would have completed 10 years and six months, becoming eligible for release — in exchange for a modified sheet.
As release dates for 10/6 lifers faded away, most of these individuals were forgotten by the outside world. Until a recent push to free them, many of Louisiana’s judges, lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates were not aware of the state’s broken promise to those who were sentenced to life before 1973.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary sits on 18,000 acres of farmland that used to be a plantation called Angola. When the plantation became a prison, the prisoners tended to the fields. Today, 73% of Louisiana’s prisoners who are facing life sentences are Black, and most of them are at Angola, where jobs still include working in the fields for pennies an hour.
By the time Grippen got to Angola, observers were describing conditions that “shock the conscience of any right thinking person” and “flagrantly violate basic constitutional requirements,” as one district judge wrote in 1975. It was a dangerous place to be incarcerated. In the early 1970s, a 10/6 lifer named James Preston was sent to work in the fields with his co-defendant, Larry. Shortly after they arrived, Larry was run over by a tractor and killed, Preston told his lawyer years later. (Because so many court records were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, Preston’s lawyers were unable to confirm Larry’s last name.)
One of the many Black men imprisoned at Angola during this time was Louis Mitchell. In the summer of 1966, police stopped the 19-year-old on his way home in New Orleans. They claimed there had been a burglary nearby and that he looked familiar. They took him to the 5th Precinct and asked if he knew a woman named Cynthia.
“Yeah, that’s the girl I go with,” he said.
“We don’t allow n****rs to go with no white girl in Louisiana,” Mitchell recalled them telling him.
Mitchell was beaten, arrested and accused of raping Cynthia. He was also charged with raping Linda, a 66-year-old white woman Mitchell says he didn’t know “from Adam and Eve.” (HuffPost does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent; one woman is deceased and the other cannot be located by HuffPost. Cynthia and Linda are pseudonyms.)
The evidence against Mitchell was weak. A medical examination of Cynthia on the day the police say she was raped did “not reveal any evidence of recent trauma.” The second woman did not identify Mitchell as her assailant in a lineup, even when the police specifically asked her if he was the perpetrator.
Mitchell didn’t know any of that at the time. What he eventually learned, he said, was that Cynthia’s mother disapproved of her daughter dating a Black man and that she had connections in the police department.
Mitchell wanted to fight the charges but quickly realized that doing so could cost him his life. Prosecutors told his lawyers, “‘The best option that your client have is to enter a guilty plea,’” Mitchell said. “‘Because if he fights, he gone get the death penalty.’”
Mitchell’s 10/6 release date was Aug. 17, 1977. He still has a copy of his rap sheet to prove it.
As the prospect of a life outside of Angola faded, Mitchell channeled his frustration into physical activity. He boxed some of the best fighters in the prison. He lifted weights and was crowned Mr. Angola. He won $50 competing in the Angola Rodeo, an activity that cost him one of his teeth. It didn’t bother him, he said. “I was numb to pain.”
Grippen got to Angola shortly after Mitchell, but he mostly kept to himself. Tall and gaunt, Grippen speaks in a soft, deep voice. He describes even his most horrific experiences in an even, steady tone.
“I was scared when I first went there,” Grippen said. “I seen a lot of people get killed. Young and old. Seen lots of them get burned up.” One time, Grippen said, he had to jump in the toilet to avoid being burned when someone started a fire in his cell.
When Grippen was a kid, the woman who raised him sat him down and told him she wasn’t his biological mother. She took him in, she said, because his biological mother didn’t want him. They were “real, real poor,” and sometimes he stole food so they’d have something to eat. He struggled in school and was in and out of juvenile detention, he said.
Grippen’s only sister was killed by an abusive boyfriend, he said. Before she died, she encouraged him to go to New Orleans because she knew he liked jazz. He followed her guidance, but he was arrested soon after he got there. He claims that he has never raped anyone but that he pleaded guilty to avoid execution.
After 20 years, Grippen was convinced he’d never get out of prison. He resolved to get in shape and try to escape. There are fences at Angola, but the real barriers are the lakes and dense trees that surround the prison. Grippen wanted to make an attempt anyway — what did he have to lose? “If they catch me and kill me, they just kill me. If they don’t kill me, I get away. I might get away, I might not,” he thought.
A friend eventually talked him out of it, urging him to instead seek release through the courts. Grippen agreed to try.
The path out of prison for Grippen and some of the other 10/6ers began in a surprising place — inside Angola itself.
In 1999, Andrew Hundley was sentenced to life in prison for a homicide he committed when he was 15 years old. Faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his natural life behind bars at such a young age, Hundley began studying the history of life sentences. Learning about the 10/6 lifers was a devastating revelation. If even those who weren’t supposed to spend their whole lives in prison had wound up doing so, he was certain he would never go home.
Hundley was transferred to Angola in 2014 and assigned to Camp F, the same dorm as Mitchell. Hundley slept in the bunk bed above another 10/6 lifer named Lester Pearson, who got to prison in 1965, more than 16 years before Hundley was born.
Hundley grew particularly friendly with a 10/6 lifer named Kenneth Womack. Hundley played basketball, and he was often the only white guy on the court. Womack, who is also white, liked watching him play, cheering, “Larry Bird!” whenever Hundley would score.
The court system proved useless for most 10/6 lifers. Few lawyers knew they existed, so they were left to file litigation on their own. Even when 10/6 lifers got their cases in front of sympathetic judges, there wasn’t an obvious legal fix. They were never guaranteed release after 10 years and six months, so it wasn’t explicitly illegal to stop granting it.
When Judge Nandi Campbell of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court took office in January 2021, she used the pandemic-related pause in jury trials to catch up on post-conviction review applications that had been languishing. Grippen’s, which he filed without help from a lawyer, was one of the first she read. He asked the judge to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that the state had not held up its end of the deal.
Campbell was stunned by the ordeal Grippen described. During all of her years as a practicing defense lawyer, she had never heard of this kind of situation. “The notion that these men were forgotten is really real,” Campbell said in an interview.
She denied the request, believing she didn’t have the authority to change his sentence. But she held on to his application. There “was something about it that was just really haunting to me,” she said.
There was a small subset of 10/6 lifers for whom the courts offered a glimmer of hope. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited mandatory life without parole for people who committed their crime before they were 18 years old. The court cited research showing how the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and risk avoidance are not yet fully developed in adolescents, making them less deserving of the most extreme punishments.
Weeks later, a 10/6 lifer named Henry Montgomery filed a motion to correct his sentence, which he argued was illegal in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. In 1963, when Montgomery was 17, he was arrested in the killing of Charles Hurt, a white plainclothes sheriff’s deputy in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. News coverage at the time described Montgomery as a “Negro student — known as ‘Wolf Man.’” Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death.
The Louisiana Supreme Court later overturned the conviction, citing racial prejudice. The trial had started on the newly created “Charles Hurt Day” and there had been Ku Klux Klan activity ahead of the court proceedings, the Louisiana Supreme Court noted in its decision.
Montgomery was retried and sentenced to life. “If Life sent is commuted by the Governor, to 10 Yrs. & 6 Mos. subjects discharge date will be 9/19/79,” an old copy of Montgomery’s rap sheet read. But by 1979, the 10/6 law was gone, and Montgomery was facing the rest of his life behind bars.
Even without a pathway to freedom, Montgomery tried to make the most of his time at Angola. He wrote letters for men who were illiterate, and he helped start an education program for those with less than an eighth-grade education. He created the Angola Amateur Boxing Association, judging matches and training other guys to box. He went to church regularly and worked for years in the prison’s silkscreen shop.
Both a district court and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Montgomery’s request to correct his sentence, claiming that the U.S. Supreme Court’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles did not apply retroactively.
“Henry was kind of heartbroken when he first got denied,” said Preston, the 10/6 lifer whose co-defendant was killed soon after he got to Angola. Preston, who was arrested at the age of 16, went on to work at the prison’s law library and followed Montgomery’s case closely.
“Henry, this is not the end,” Preston told Montgomery at the time. “You got another chance. All you gotta do is just hang in there.”
Montgomery challenged his sentence all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2016 he won. The court ruled that its prior ban on mandatory life without parole for juveniles applied retroactively.
“I can’t even explain to you how happy a lot of cats was when they found out his case was retroactive,” said Preston. “I almost jumped through the ceiling.”
Montgomery’s Supreme Court victory didn’t guarantee his release, but it did mean that he and thousands of others who had expected to die in prison would get the chance to go before a parole board.
In June 2016, Hundley became the first juvenile lifer in Louisiana to be released as a result of the Montgomery decision. “I got a break, for lack of a better term,” he said. He applied for parole with help from a skilled parole lawyer almost immediately after the Supreme Court news. The parole board unanimously voted to release him, and he walked out of Angola after 19 years in prison. The following year, the state legislature passed a law creating a 25-year minimum before any juvenile lifer could go before the parole board.
Once released, Hundley was free to leave Angola behind and never return. But he thought of Pearson, his former bunk mate. “Certainly he watched me go home and had to wonder to himself, ‘How is this guy going home and I’m still here?’”
So he’s made it his job to go back for those he’d left behind.
Hundley is the first to point out the unfairness of him getting out before others who have been locked up for much longer. Months after his release, he helped start the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit that works to free people who have been incarcerated for 20 or more years and have demonstrated their rehabilitation. In the past five years, the nonprofit has helped get more than 230 people out of prison. In parole hearings, Hundley commits to providing long-term support to anyone granted release by the parole board.
Hundley’s post-prison life makes the case for second chances. Since his release, he has earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s, helped start a nonprofit organization, gotten married and bought a house. He and his wife have two pugs and are expecting their first child. He speaks fast and works long hours, as if making up for lost time.
The Parole Project is mostly staffed by people who have been incarcerated; several of them are the group’s former clients. They know firsthand the unexpected challenges of reentering society after a long stint in prison, and they apply those lessons to their work. One of the first things Parole Project staffers do after picking someone up from Angola is take them shopping for clothing and groceries. The idea is to make sure they have basic necessities — but also to help them get comfortable being around others, choosing between infinite brands of toothpaste and navigating the checkout process.
The Parole Project owns eight properties that can provide free transitional housing to 27 people. It also has nine one-bedroom condos that it rents to people who can afford housing but struggle to find a landlord who will rent to someone with felony convictions. The group offers classes on life skills their clients may have missed by spending so long in prison: financial literacy, social norms, how to get a job, how to use a cellphone and how to avoid online scams. There’s also a class on how to interact with the police — for many formerly incarcerated people, their last experience with a police officer was traumatizing.
But even as the Parole Project helped hundreds of people get out of prison, most of the 10/6 lifers remained out of reach. The only ones eligible for parole were the handful who were younger than 18 at the time of the offense they were convicted of. Even Montgomery, whose landmark Supreme Court case provided second chances to so many others, was repeatedly denied parole.
But in December 2020, Jason Williams won the Orleans Parish district attorney race with a decisive 15-percentage-point lead. Williams, a former criminal defense lawyer and city councilman, ran as a progressive prosecutor and promised to create a civil rights division to review old cases involving prosecutorial misconduct and overly harsh sentences.
He recruited his longtime friend Emily Maw, from Innocence Project New Orleans, to head the division. Maw agreed to it on the condition that she would have the resources and encouragement to “look into every vestige of the atrocities and harms that were caused by the D.A.’s office to people in this city,” Williams said in an interview. It wouldn’t be enough to promise to do better going forward, they agreed. There needed to be a thorough “reckoning with the sins of the past.”
Williams wasn’t familiar with the 10/6 lifers when he was first elected, but Maw was. Back in 2006, Innocence Project New Orleans helped exonerate a Black 10/6 lifer who had been wrongfully convicted of raping a white teenager when he was also a teen. “It’s the kind of thing that when you learn about it, in the context of somebody telling you ‘I was promised this thing and then they changed it’ — it forever affected me,” Maw said in an interview.
Hundley was selected to be part of a transition team working group for the incoming district attorney. “We can’t have a conversation in Louisiana about mass incarceration without talking about the 10/6 lifers,” he said during the first meeting.
“Everyone said, ‘What’s a 10/6 lifer?’” Hundley later recalled.
Hundley explained the history and talked about the 10/6 lifers he knew. Williams had jurisdiction only over the 18 people who had been sentenced under that system in Orleans Parish. But by early 2021, his office had committed to taking a look at each of those cases.
Grippen didn’t know about the new district attorney’s plans, and he was losing hope. He prayed every night, and sometimes during the day too, for a way out of Angola. “The things I seen over the years, it spooked me,” he said. “I had nightmares about it. Hollering in my sleep, waking people up in the dormitories. But they understood why.”
Last spring, a staffer at the prison told him to go to the office because he had a phone call. Grippen was taken aback. “I got a phone call? I ain’t know I was that popular,” he said, wondering who could possibly be trying to reach him.
When he picked up the phone, Hundley was waiting on the other end of the line.
“Leroy, I know you don’t know me,” Hundley said, “But I want to help you.”
Soon after that call, Hundley and several of his colleagues went to Angola to meet with about a dozen of the 10/6 lifers who had been convicted in Orleans Parish and were under Williams’ jurisdiction. They met in the prison’s chapel, where the 10/6 lifers filed into the pews and Hundley stood at the pulpit.
There was a new district attorney, Hundley explained, and he was interested in reviewing their sentences. Hundley spoke deliberately, being careful not to overpromise. Nothing was guaranteed, he said. There would be victim outreach, and a judge would have to sign off on any resentencing agreements. But for the first time in decades, there was cause for hope.
To Grippen, this news was nothing short of divine intervention. Out of all the people in prison, they found his name and chose to help. “God went to them to come to me,” he said.
“I appreciate it from my heart,” he told the staff at the Parole Project. “Because if it wasn’t for y’all, if I didn’t run away from here, I would’ve committed suicide. I would’ve hung myself.”
The process for freeing the 10/6 lifers was straightforward: Their lawyer at the Parole Project and the district attorney’s office would sign on to a joint post-conviction plea agreement asking a judge vacate the existing life sentence and replace it with a sentence shorter than the amount of time already served. Grippen would be the first test case of this process — along with Mitchell, who was still hanging on to his old rap sheet with that original promise from the state for an early release.
Days before the hearing, Hundley ran into an unexpected hurdle. Staff at Angola couldn’t find a birth certificate for Leroy Grippen — or any indication that he existed before his arrest.
When Hundley called to talk about it, Grippen offered a matter-of-fact explanation. “Oh, well, my name is not Leroy Grippen. My name is Willie Ingram.”
As it turned out, when he was arrested in 1970, he gave the cops a fake name, “Leroy Griffin,” hoping they wouldn’t find his record of stealing in Florida, where he grew up poor. The cops misheard him and wrote down “Leroy Grippen.” The name followed him through the courts and into Angola.
On a Tuesday morning in early October, about a dozen of Mitchell’s family members filed into a New Orleans courtroom. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Mitchell would participate by videoconference, but his family still wanted to come to court as a show of support.
One of the relatives in the courtroom was Mitchell’s niece Lucille Johnson, who was a toddler when he was arrested. She has no memories of her uncle outside of prison, but she does remember the day of his arrest — specifically, how hard it was to see her mother in so much pain. Growing up, Johnson’s mom and grandmother held community supper fundraisers to hire a lawyer. But nothing the lawyers did worked.
In the joint plea agreement, Mitchell’s lawyer Jane Hogan and Assistant District Attorney Bidish Sarma asked Campbell to resentence him to 40 years. It was less time than he had already served, so he would be able to get out immediately — but under the condition that he forfeit his right to seek additional relief in court. They cited the state’s betrayal of the 10/6 promise, Mitchell’s good conduct while incarcerated, his comprehensive reentry plan, studies that show people typically age out of crime and the costs of imprisoning someone of his age — more than $77,000 each year.
It had taken Mitchell decades just to get someone in a position of power to recognize his existence. Now, here in court, a prosecutor was arguing for his freedom and a judge was tearing up listening to what he had been through.
Then the judge ruled.
Campbell agreed to the plea agreement, and he was free. The hearing was mostly procedural and the whole thing took about half an hour. But for Mitchell, the experience was profound. “It seemed to me like she seen my innocence,” Mitchell said. “It felt like she knew.”
“It was joyful,” he said. “I never thought nobody gonna see my innocence.”
Ingram, whose resentencing paperwork still named him as “Leroy Grippen,” went next. The courtroom emptied out except for the Parole Project staff. “It went from a celebration to this more, I don’t want to say somber, but it was just sort of matter of fact — and then it was over,” Hundley said. Ingram was free, too.
Hundley and Parole Project Deputy Director Kerry Myers picked Mitchell and Ingram up that afternoon and took them to Baton Rouge, where they would live in one of the Parole Project’s townhomes.
“This is just something you can’t describe in words. Words can’t fit it,” Mitchell said in a phone interview during the car ride that day. “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.”
“They’ve done a wonderful job getting me out of Angola,” Mitchell said. “I’m not going to mess up their reputation through stupidity. If anything, I’m going to help their cause.”
Even after watching Mitchell and Ingram leave Angola, Lester Pearson didn’t think his day would come. He knew better than to get his hopes up. Spending that many years in prison had taught him the precariousness of things that were supposed to be near certain. His life had been dictated by the whims and inclinations of people more powerful than him, who were motivated by factors outside of his control.
On Tuesday, Oct. 19, that person was Robin Pittman, the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge presiding over his resentencing hearing.
Pearson, 84, participated in the hearing through a videoconference from Angola. He had been in prison for nearly 57 years. Hogan, the Parole Project lawyer, had briefed him on the joint plea agreement, so he knew what to expect, but he couldn’t make out every word of the hearing.
Pittman announced her decision to vacate Pearson’s life sentence and resentence him to 55 years, two years fewer than he had already completed. She wished him good luck and encouraged him to make use of what he learned during his time in prison.
“Yes, ma’am,” Pearson responded. “Thank you, ma’am.”
As a final formality, she asked Pearson to raise his right hand and confirm that he understood the terms of the agreement.
At one point, Pearson said he wasn’t following, so Pittman repeated the terms of the agreement.
The judge asked him if he understood.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I understand some of it.”
Hogan interjected, explaining to him that he had to agree he wouldn’t file anything in court.
“No!” Pearson exclaimed. “I understand.”
“How many years did I give you?” Pittman asked.
“I believe you said 40,” Pearson said, citing the number Hogan and Sarma had proposed in the joint plea agreement he had reviewed ahead of the hearing. He wasn’t positive what number the judge had landed on — he just knew it was less time than he had already done.
Pittman told him that she didn’t say anything close to 40 and that she didn’t like to repeat herself. “I’m getting frustrated,” she said and suggested they push the hearing to another day.
Hogan told the judge she believed her client understood the terms of the deal, he just was having a hard time hearing. But Pittman was obligated to ensure that Pearson was aware of what he was agreeing to, and she was losing patience.
At that moment, it seemed that Pearson, who had refused to get his hopes up, would not be leaving Angola that day after all.
Hogan requested a moment for a private call with Pearson.
When they returned, Pearson carefully recited the terms of the plea deal.
“Well,” Pittman said, “I guess that’s it.” Pearson would walk free later that day.
The week before Thanksgiving, the five 10/6 lifers who had gotten out of prison agreed to meet with me. They were staying in Baton Rouge in two townhomes owned by the Parole Project, about half a mile from each other. There were weekly house meetings where they debriefed about adjusting to their new situation. They were welcome to stay in the townhomes for as long as they wanted, Hundley told them, but some were eager to move on and settle down closer to their families.
The ease of their transitions varied depending on their ties to a world outside of Angola. Womack was already part of a tight-knit church community, and during his first several weeks of freedom, members of the church took him fishing and to shop for a suit and dress shoes. They offered to host him for Thanksgiving dinner. He was looking forward to moving into the spare room in his brother’s house in Tennessee.
The speed of modern vehicles scared Womack, and he was still figuring out how to use his smartphone. But, overall, things were good.
“It’s sensational,” Womack said of being out of prison. “Every day I’m just overjoyed and really taking it in and enjoying it.”
For Mitchell, every weekend was a family reunion. After everything, he still smiled easily and was quick to crack a joke. In November, his family rented a banquet hall and threw a surprise party for his 75th birthday. They pinned cash to the lapel of his suit jacket, a New Orleans tradition, and surprised him with a car.
“My family, I didn’t know they had that much love for me,” Mitchell said. “It’s like, the time they wanted to see me and they couldn’t see me, and they see me now — they pouring it out all on me. They throwing all that love that they had pent up all on me.”
Things were harder for Ingram. When he walked out of Angola, he had no official record of his existence. It had been more than a month since his release, and Parole Project staffers still hadn’t been able to track down any identifying documentation.
They had applied for birth certificate records in Louisiana and Florida under different variations of the name “Willie Ingram” but hadn’t been able to get a response. “It’s like screaming into outer space,” Hundley said. It seemed possible that after experiencing so much trauma and living under a false name for so much of his life, Ingram might not actually know his birth name.
Without a birth certificate, Ingram couldn’t get an ID card or a Social Security number, which meant he couldn’t apply for food stamps or housing assistance. He even risked being turned away at the pharmacy if he went to pick up prescription medication.
He tried to stay busy to keep his mind from wandering. But he felt limited in what he could do. He wanted to go see a movie or go to a restaurant, but he didn’t have money. He got lost trying to go for a run, and he didn’t know how to use the navigation app on his phone. He ended up walking into a restaurant, explaining that he had just gotten out of prison and needed help finding his way home.
He wants a friend — someone he didn’t know from prison — but he doesn’t know how to meet one. He wants to get his high school diploma and maybe even go to college, but he doesn’t know where to start. As a registered sex offender, he’s worried he might get in trouble if he goes to the library.
“What could I do?” Ingram asked. “What do they want from me?”
Mitchell also had to register as a sex offender, a painful reminder that, although he was no longer in prison, he was not officially vindicated. The only way for him to obtain formal recognition of his innocence would be through an executive pardon.
“It’s like kidnapping me,” Mitchell said of the registry. “I’m free one way, but I’m not really free.”
Hundley usually commutes between the Parole Project office in Baton Rouge and his home in New Orleans. But on Nov. 16, he spent the night in a vacant room in one of the Parole Project’s transitional houses in Baton Rouge. The next day was an important one, and he couldn’t risk a traffic jam on Interstate 10 making him late.
By then he had helped get five 10/6 lifers out of prison and had assurances that more were on their way home. But Montgomery, the man who made Hundley’s freedom possible, was still at Angola. Because he was convicted in East Baton Rouge Parish, Williams couldn’t touch his case.
Since his Supreme Court victory, Montgomery had gone before the three-member parole board twice to request a second chance but failed to get the required unanimous vote both times. The first time, in 2018, one board member voted in his favor but two claimed he hadn’t taken enough classes to deserve release. This was a nonsensical rationale: Montgomery had completed the requisite 100 hours of programming, even though Angola didn’t offer classes for the first 30 years of his imprisonment.
Still, Montgomery looked for more classes to take and stayed out of trouble. But in 2019, the parole board denied him a second time, this time with only one dissenting vote. He still hadn’t taken enough classes, claimed Brennan Kelsey, the lone no vote. “I think that’s a lack of maturity,” Kelsey told Montgomery, who was then 72.
Montgomery’s third parole board hearing was on Nov. 17, and this time Hundley had a good feeling about it. Montgomery had completed more classes, and the optics of continuing to imprison the aging man were becoming increasingly untenable. By then, roughly 800 juvenile lifers had been released from prison as a result of the Montgomery Supreme Court decision.
Hundley has spoken at hundreds of parole hearings, but still he stayed up until 2 a.m. preparing for Montgomery’s. Just before 9 a.m., Hundley sat down in front of his laptop at a rectangular granite table in a Parole Project conference room, wearing a gray suit and a purple tie. The walls were decorated with portraits of formerly incarcerated Parole Project clients and a hand-painted sign by a New Orleans artist that said, “Believe in second chances.” Behind Hundley sat several former juvenile lifers who were also freed by Montgomery’s case. This was deeply personal, for all of them.
Hundley joined the video call for the hearing and the room fell silent, with all eyes locked on the laptop screen. Montgomery, who participated from Angola, is hard of hearing, and at times he appeared to struggle to follow the discussion that would determine his freedom.
Asked how he had changed in the years since his crime, Montgomery said he had learned about helping others and the importance of thinking ahead. He apologized to the Hurts. He had destroyed their family, he said, something he would carry with him for the rest of his life.
When it was Hundley’s turn to speak, he began by acknowledging the “depth of loss” experienced by the Hurt family. “We are not here to defend Henry’s actions from 57 years ago, rather we are here to speak about who Henry is today.”
“The day I was born, Henry had already been in prison 18 years. I came home from Angola 5½ years ago, and Henry is still there,” Hundley said. “Today, there are about 12 of us in this very room who benefited from a court ruling that bears Henry’s name. We submit to you that Henry is no less worthy of this opportunity than any of us who came home before him.”
The family of Charles Hurt appeared at each of Montgomery’s parole hearings to oppose his release. At the third hearing, Linda Hurt Wood, the daughter of Charles Hurt, suggested that Montgomery was feigning his health problems. Releasing him would show “great disrespect” to law enforcement officers, she said.
One by one, each of the three members of the parole board panel voted to grant Montgomery’s release.
The crowd in the Parole Project office burst into applause, jumping out of their seats for a group embrace. They continued celebrating in another room, but Hundley stayed behind. He still had two more juvenile lifers’ parole hearings to speak at. One was granted release; the other was denied.
Around 11 a.m., Hundley got the call from Angola: Montgomery was ready to be picked up. As he made the familiar drive to the prison, he fielded near-constant calls and texts from other Parole Project clients. If juggling the bureaucratic and logistical challenges of multiple cases at once frazzled him, it didn’t show. Everyone has their talents, and Hundley’s, he told me, is that he knows how to get things done.
Louisiana Highway 66, the road that takes you the last 20 miles to Angola, is surprisingly scenic, lined by lush green trees. But to anyone who has spent time at Angola, the trees are part of the prison, a key part of the barrier that separates the incarcerated from the rest of society.
Just before 12:30 p.m., Montgomery walked through the gates of Angola carrying a small sack with his few belongings. He and Hundley hugged off to the side before facing the reporters and camera crews that had come to document the high-profile release. Seeing Montgomery in person, it was clear why he had a hard time following the parole hearing. His hearing aids consisted of over-the-ear headphones that wrapped around the back of his head, hooked up to a small box with a microphone that dangled around his neck from a lanyard.
“We’re going to get you better ones,” Hundley promised.
After answering a few questions from reporters, Montgomery climbed into the front seat of Hundley’s SUV to head home to Baton Rouge, a city he hadn’t seen in nearly 60 years.
“Here, let me do something, Henry,” Hundley said, leaning over to buckle Montgomery’s seatbelt, a practice that wasn’t yet mandatory the last time Montgomery was a free man.
Seven of the 10/6 lifers have now been freed from Angola. Williams has committed to try to bring home the remaining 12 who were convicted in Orleans Parish, all of whom are Black. That leaves dozens of others. Mitchell is friends with one of them, and he’s hanging on to his friend’s old rap sheet. It shows that he was supposed to be eligible for release on Dec. 20, 1983.
Womack didn’t end up moving in with his brother in Tennessee. After a brief visit, his brother’s wife told him she didn’t want him to live with them after all. It wasn’t personal, she said, she just wasn’t used to living with other people. Womack understood, but he’s still trying to figure out what’s next.
The guys who knew Ingram at Angola still call him “Grippen,” but he’s getting closer to having proof of his real identity. After he got out of Angola, the Parole Project asked Alachua County Public Schools to search for Ingram’s records. The report cards they found for William “Willie” Ingram show a boy who struggled in school and whose teachers judged him harshly. He “has made very little progress,” several teachers wrote in their comments.
But there it was, finally on paper. Willie Ingram was a real person.
Shortly after Hundley updated me about the progress on Ingram’s case, he mentioned that there had been a similar issue with another client. The records staff at Angola had been unable to find a birth certificate for Henry Montgomery — a name that has become synonymous with juvenile justice reform in the U.S.
Using Montgomery’s mother’s name, records staffers were eventually able to locate his birth certificate. It revealed that his first name is not Henry and his last name is not Montgomery.
Hundley asked that Montgomery’s legal name be kept private to afford him some level of anonymity. His best guess at the reason for the name discrepancy is that Montgomery assumed the last name of his grandparents when he moved in with them as a young boy. The first and middle names on the birth certificate appear with an unusual spelling, suggesting that his mother may have been illiterate or was misunderstood by the person who wrote down the name.
Either way, the man whose name bears a landmark Supreme Court case plans to keep going by “Henry Montgomery,” even if his ID card says otherwise.
In mid-December, I got a call from a New Orleans phone number I didn’t recognize. “You know who this is?” a familiar voice asked, his grin apparent even through the phone.
“Is this Louis?” I asked.
“Yes it is,” he said with a laugh.
In the weeks since I had visited, Mitchell had moved out of the transitional housing in Baton Rouge and into his niece’s home in a town outside of New Orleans. They were still having family reunions each weekend, he said, and he was invited to multiple Christmas parties. He was still in touch with his roommates from Baton Rouge, and he was planning to visit them soon.
Campbell, the judge from his resentencing hearing, teaches a criminal law seminar at Loyola University School of Law, and she invited Mitchell and Ingram to speak to her students at their end-of-semester dinner.
“It was the most emotional, powerful evening that I’ve had since I started practicing law,” Campbell said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
One person at the dinner asked Mitchell if he was mad about what he had been through.
“No,” he said. “I felt that once upon a time. I used to lay in bed and cry, ‘Why am I here?’”
“I been hurt too long to cry. The pain got me numb,” he said.
“When I talk about it, you will cry. But I won’t feel a thing because I’m numb from crying. I’m numb from hurting.”