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Commutation of sentence.

The recent commutation of Roger Stone’s 40-month federal prison term just days before he was scheduled to report to a penal facility to begin that term triggered an avalanche is criticism about corruption in the executive clemency process.

I know a thing or two about corruption and clemency.

In August 1986, my wife and I reported to the FBI about a massive pardons-selling scheme in place at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. It became the largest “pardons-selling corruption” investigation in Louisiana history.

Jodie  wore a wire for the FBI during their investigation of the scheme—a criminal enterprise that implicated former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, the governor’s executive counsel, his legislative floor leader, his pardon board chairman, a host of prison officials, and a litany of Dixie Mafia henchmen at Angola.

The whole scheme was laid out in my memoir, co-written with my wife, and released through a New York publisher in 2000, titled, “A Life in the Balance.”

To say we paid a hell of a price for being whistleblowers would be a proverbial understatement.

It nearly cost me my life as the hands of a Dixie Mafia henchman and most assuredly caused me to spend 20 more years in prison while every inmate who “bought a pardon” went free.

Being labeled an “FBI informant” resulted in my reputation as an award-winning prison journalist being criticized in a New York Times editorial (seriously, The New York Times said I had a higher ethical duty to protect journalism over a legal obligation to report criminal wrongdoing). It also produced articles in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review and a host of newspapers like the New Orleans Times Picayune critical of my FBI informant role.

And while the Times was editorializing against me for doing the right thing, the head of the Dixie Mafia was operating a $2 million “homosexual mail scam” inside Angola—a scam federal prosecutors would later say earned him at least $2. 4 million put away in three bank accounts the federal government could not touch.

I was told by Kirksey McCord Nix’s right-hand man and two State Police investigators that the mafia chieftain had put at least $500,000 in the Louisiana pardons selling pipeline through a Biloxi, Mississippi attorney named Peter Halat.

Halat had been law partners with a prominent Biloxi judge named Vincent Sherry since 1981.

In arrangements made by Nix’s wife, who was overseeing Nix’s criminal enterprise out of Halat’s law office, the attorney had supposedly given the money to a Mississippi sheriff, a longtime friend and hunting buddy of Gov. Edwards, as payment for a commutation of the life sentence Nix was serving for a 1972 murder that occurred in New Orleans.

Our exposure of the pardons-selling scheme, of course, disrupted Nix’s commutation plans.

After my debriefing by the FBI in November 1986 and my appearance the following month before a state grand jury, the State Police’s launched an investigation into a broad range of corruption issues at Angola. That investigation began to develop information about how widespread the Dixie Mafia’s influence was at Angola.

Without good reason, the Louisiana Corrections Secretary, reportedly at the direction of the governor, stepped in and ordered State Police investigators out of Angola. That action by the Secretary put an end to the State Police investigation into Nix’s multi-million dollar criminal enterprise.

The decision to end the Angola investigation occurred in February 1987.

With his commutation chances blown up by our exposure of the pardons selling scheme, Nix instructed Halat to return his $500,000. At the time, Halat was amassing a war chest for his eventual 1989 election as mayor of Biloxi. He needed Nix’s money to underwrite that election campaign.

Knowing how dangerous Nix was, Halat told the Dixie Mafia chieftain that Vincent Sherry had “ripped off” the money in order to secure his 1986 appointment to a state court judgeship.

That was a lie and a gross betrayal of the friendship Vincent Sherry had given to Halat.

Furious, Nix initiated a plan through a Biloxi strip club owner, with deep ties to the Dixie Mafia, to have Vincent Sherry killed. The strip club owner, Mike Gillich, was more than willing to orchestrate the contract killing Judge Sherry and, in fact, added the judge’s wife, Margaret, to the hit list because she had long crusaded against the corrupt influences of his strip club operations while she was on the Biloxi City Council.

Through arrangements reportedly made by Gillich, a contract killer was brought in from Texas to carry out the Sherry contract killings.

In September 1987, Vincent and Margaret Sherry were brutally murdered in their exclusive Biloxi residence. Their double murder drew national and international media attention.

The Sherry murders would not have taken place had the State Police been allowed to continue their February 1987 investigation into Nix’s corrupt enterprises at Angola. The plot to kill Judge Sherry was already in its early stages when the State Police investigation was abruptly shut down by the Louisiana Corrections Secretary. Had it been allowed to continue, that investigation would have led to the Sherry murder plot and their murders would have been averted.

Of course, the Corrections Secretary had the cover of the New York Times editorial to undermine the integrity of the pardons-selling investigation—all of which was used to create a tacit pathway to shut down the State Police investigation into Nix’s criminal enterprise.

In the wake of both the state and federal pardons-selling investigations, this is what the political landscape looked like in 1987-88:

 Gov. Edwards escaped liability as did his executive counsel; the legislative floor leader was indicted but acquitted at a jury trial; the pardon board chairman was indicted, pled guilty, and received a 5-year federal prison term; several prison officials, including the one who tried to broker the deal with me and Jodie, were indicted, pled guilty, and received probation; two Angola wardens, including the head warden, were forced to resign as were a laundry list of other prison officials; and all the inmates who bought pardons were allowed to keep them and they all were released from prison.

In March 1988, Louisiana’s first truly “reform” governor assumed the reins of power. One of his first actions was to reopen the Angola corruption investigation by naming an elite 17-man State Police task force to complete their 1987 investigation.

That task force investigation led state and federal authorities to Nix’s role in the Sherry murders.

An ensuing FBI investigation discovered the Dixie Mafia’ involvement in those murders. 

Subsequent federal prosecutions convicted Nix, the Texas hitman, the strip club owner, and Peter Halat for related conspiracies in the Sherry murders.

The hitman died in a federal prison and the strip club owner gained early release to die of cancer in the free world.

Halat served 15 years of an 18-year prison term before being released in 2012 and is now living in retirement with his wife.

Nix is locked away in a federal super max prison in Colorado where he will spend the rest of his life.

Three Dixie Mafia henchmen who cooperated with the initial 1987 Angola corruption investigation were mysteriously gunned down in different Louisiana parishes within weeks of their release from prison. None of their killers were ever captured.

And what about me and Jodie?

Just days after I testified before a state grand jury investigating the “pardons-selling scheme” and exploring corruption at Angola, Gov. Edwards, on the advice of his executive counsel, denied a 60-year commutation of my life sentence which had been unanimously recommended by his pardon board two years earlier.

It was calculated political revenge and a message to any other inmate thinking about telling what they knew.

The long and short of it is that Jodie and I refused to pay the $15,000 for my corrupt release in 1986.

Twenty years later, in 2006, we paid $25,000 to the best attorney in Louisiana to create a level political playing field in order to secure my parole release from the Louisiana prison system.

“Why didn’t you just pay the money to buy a pardon,” we’ve been asked a million times.

Because it would have been crime to do so  — and to this day I don’t give a f..k what the New York Times said, I had a greater legal obligation to report corruption than to protect any perceived “journalism integrity” a prison magazine may have had—incidentally, one of whose staffers had, ironically, paid $5,000 to buy a pardon.

That was my experience in the executive clemency arena.

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The True Stories of Inmate Suffering Finally Emerging

Every day, there’s a story in the news about the brutal treatment of an inmate or prosecutorial misconduct in a case that has kept an innocent man behind bars for decades.

For me, the stories are a dream come true. For too long, the truth about America’s criminal justice system has been hidden from the public. Outrage is unlocking its secrets. It’s a blessing for advocates of prison reform, because these days, “crime” is getting great ratings. 

According to Variety, “primetime programming at Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN rose 8% in 2018…while total revenue rose 4% to $5.3 billion.”  

Prime time crime shows are raking in big bucks from advertisers, including Chicago PD, FBI and FBI Most Wanted, NCIS, Law & Order Special Victims Unit, Blue Bloods, How To Get Away With Murder, SWAT and Hawaii Five-O, among other hugely popular crime programs currently on TV.

It’s prompting news networks and newspapers to cover the real stories behind the bars. NBC Nightly News is a prime example.

In September 2019, NBC anchor Lester Holt went to Angola, Louisiana’s maximum security prison, to talk to inmates and spend 2 nights in a cell.  A few days later, he held a town hall with prisoners at Sing-Sing, a New York State maximum security prison. NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt was “the #1-most watched newscast in the key A25-54 and A18-49 demos for the week of September 2, 2019,” according to the ratings giant, Nielsen Media Research.

Am I grateful that big time journalism is getting the message? You bet.  Because I’m not a lone voice in an abyss anymore. 

After a 25-year battle to free my husband, publishing two books with him  – one while he was still in prison and writing my memoir – “Love Behind Bars:  The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife,” I am so glad others’ stories are getting the attention they deserve.

Because America’s prison system is an inhumane mess.

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“For Life”

A new ABC drama about an inmate wrongfully convicted on a drug charge and given a life sentence. While imprisoned, the inmate character, Aaron Wallace, secures a law degree, works both as a “jailhouse lawyer” and “inmate rep” for other inmates, and is determined to bring down the corrupt prosecutor who sent him to prison by working on behalf of other inmates also wrongfully convicted by this prosecutor.

The prison and courtroom scenes are rather sophomoric but the quality acting by all the characters involved in the show allow you to get past these minor details.

That Wallace has “anger issues” is an understatement. He roils in the stuff. Light a match around him and he would probably wake up St. Louis.

But “For Life” is both timely and needed.

Political corruption, misconduct, and cheating are woven into the nation’s prosecutorial system. There are scores of prosecutors who, despite having a strong case of guilt, will use perjured testimony, manufacture evidence, and conceal mitigating case to secure a conviction for a higher grade of offense. For example, prosecutors turning a non-death penalty case into a death penalty case because it enhances their “conviction resume.”

“For Life” serves an additional benefit besides exposing this kind of official wrongdoing.

The show speaks to the issue of  “jailhouse lawyering.”

The practice of “jailhouse law” received constitutional blessing from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968. Virtually every prison, even jails, now have “law libraries” staffed by inmates (often referred to as “ inmate counsel-substitutes”) who assist inmates with post-conviction pleadings, lawsuits against prison conditions, and before prison disciplinary proceedings.

Jailhouse lawyers keep the hope machine ginning in the prison community. They work long hours (often under official duress), constantly face official harassment or retaliation, and try to keep under control clients who have little experience or training in control.

I won the first “prisoner rights” lawsuit in Louisiana in 1971 and one of the first in the nation. That lawsuit opened the door to many “reforms” in the prison system and legitimized the practice of jailhouse lawyering in the state’s prison system.

But former Louisiana Corrections Secretary C. Paul Phelps once told me: “You’ve done more to change the prison system with the lawsuits you didn’t win than with those you did win. Good prison administrators pay attention to all inmate lawsuits – they often tell us what we are not doing right.”

That said, Aaron Wallace needs to get his anger issues under control, although there is not much chance he will do that in the coming episodes. He is a man on a mission. Having a mission and the determination to fulfill that mission has made many inmates achieve incredible accomplishments behind bars, not just for themselves but for others as well.

Give “For Life” a view. At least it will make you think about criminal justice. There are enough pro-prosecution/cops shows on T.V. to add another thousand people to the prison system each week. Give, and, yes, share of little equal opportunity with Aaron Wallace as he fights to change a corrupt criminal justice system—one that favors wealth, privilege, and social status over poverty, deprivation and social disenfranchisement.