On December 22, journalist Beth Shelbourne posted a tweet about Willie Simmons’ outrageous treatment under Alabama’s controversial habitual offender law.
In 1982, Willie was sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole because he stole $9. This was possible because he was prosecuted under the habitual offender law and had three prior albeit nonviolent convictions.
He told me his priors were 1 grand larceny and 2 receiving stolen property. I could only locate the grand larceny from 1979. He did a year in prison for that conviction, and thinks he did about the same for the other crimes. "But I really can't remember," he said. 2/12— Beth Shelburne (@bshelburne) December 22, 2019
At age 25 Simmons was addicted to drugs robbed a man of his wallet which contained all of $9. He was arrested nearby and his trial lasted a whole 25 minutes. He tells Shelbourne that he remembers them saying: “we’ll do our best to keep you off the streets for good.”
Simmons is now 62 years old and has served 38 years. He has not had any visitors since 2005 and still hopes to get out of prison somehow. He has never denied any of his crimes and has tried to appeal his case several times over the years. His appeals were all denied.
Mr. Simmons is incarcerated at Holman, one of the most violent prisons in the country. He is studying for his GED and "tries to stay away from the wild bunch." He got sober in prison 18 years ago, despite being surrounded by drugs. "I just talked to God about it," he said. 4/12— Beth Shelburne (@bshelburne) December 22, 2019
He is being held at Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama which Shelbourne says is one of the “most violent prisons in the country.” He is studying towards his GED and tells Shelbourne: “I ain’t giving up.” My hope is to get out of here, settle down with a woman and do God’s will. I’d like to tell people about how bad drugs are.”
Alabama’s Habitual Offender Law has been broadly criticized as being too harsh.
For Class C offenses, like stalking or custodial interference, an offender can be sentenced up to ten years if they have no prior felonies and 15 years to life if they have three prior felonies.
The range increases from 2-20 years for an offender with no previous convictions and 20 years to life with three previous convictions for class B offenses. These include first-degree assault and second-degree kidnapping.
Over the years, he's filed appeal after appeal, with no lawyer. All were denied. "In a place like this, it can feel like you're standing all alone," he told me. "I ain't got nobody on the outside to call and talk to. Sometimes I feel like I'm lost in outer space." 8/12— Beth Shelburne (@bshelburne) December 22, 2019
First-degree robbery, murder and other Class A offenses with at least three prior offenses carry a sentence of life or life without parole. Life without parole is obligatory if one prior conviction was also Class A.