A Black Louisiana man convicted of attempted aggravated rape, and sentenced to 100 years in prison five decades ago, was released from a state penitentiary on Monday, Feb. 14.
Days before Vincent Simmons’ 70th birthday, a judge ruled that the man did not receive a fair trial.
Simmons was convicted by a mostly all-white jury in 1977, of attempted sexual assault of Karen and Sharon Sanders, twin sisters from Marksville, Louisiana. The twins, both white, were 14 years old during the alleged incident.
The jury consisted of 11 white men and one Black woman. Convicted at 25, Simmons maintained for over 44 years that he was innocent of the crime.
New information about his case has cast doubt for Avoyelles Parish Judge William Bennett. Justin Bonus, Simmons’ attorney, filed a motion for his release, citing evidence that would have worked in his client’s favor that was never presented at trial, CBS News reports.
The first bit of evidence showed there was “no physical evidence that connects him to that crime. There’s no blood. There’s no semen, there’s no hairs,” Bonus told “CBS Mornings.”
“Sharon talks about bleeding all over the car. Karen talks about a violent rape. Where’s the evidence in the car? Where’s the blood in the car?” Bonus said. “There’s nothing that supports a crime happened, and there’s definitely not anything that supports a Black man committed the crime.”
Sharon and her sister still stand by their statements: “He told us he was going to kill us. And we believed every word of it.”
The then-young girls reported the alleged crime two weeks after it supposedly happened. Their account of the event was that a Black man took them in their 18-year-old cousin Keith Laborde’s car up to a country road and sexually assaulted them for three hours. Laborde was reportedly locked in the car’s trunk during the ordeal.
Sharon said “We called him ‘Simmons’ all night. There’s so many things about that night. He gave us his name.”
In the ’70s, the women did not provide a name to the sheriff about the man that allegedly abused them. The only thing they knew was that the man who attempted to rape them was Black.
“They testified before the jury they were brutally raped,” Simmons said at a parole hearing “They repeatedly asked them if they would be able to identify this person if they saw them, and they said no because ‘all Blacks look alike.’ ”
The 58-year-old women did not deny saying that.
When asked if they used “N-word” when saying “all Blacks look alike,” Sharon said, “That’s right. Sure did.”
Other evidence brought to the forefront was that a medical examination was never presented by the prosecution at Simmons’ trial.
Furthermore, Simmons alleged that the lineup photo that they used to show the teen girls featured him in handcuffs and not the other Black men. Sharon Sanders insists that’s not true and that she, her sister and their cousin picked him, uncuffed, out of the lineup.
Eddie Knoll, the former D.A. who prosecuted this case and who would have shown the girls the images, declined an interview. He did say that a photo of Simmons in handcuffs was taken after the lineup and that Simmons’ defense had access to all the evidence that he had.
One of the lawyers Simmons hired for an appeal in an attempt to get a new trial for Simmons, Laurie White, said that’s not true because if they had access to the evidence, it may have changed the trajectory of Simmons’ life.
White, now a Louisiana criminal court judge, said, “It was pretty clear to me that the defense did not have information to impeach the witnesses, they did not have the police report, they did not have that photograph of a physical lineup. They did not have what was a rape kit at that time for the coroner to have physically looked at the two alleged victims. Had a jury heard, I don’t think they would have convicted, or they would not have convicted, perhaps of that charge.”
The appeal by White, is one of many, including an appeal by Simmons to the parole board, along with roughly 16 unsuccessful attempts to get his conviction thrown out.
Additional evidence came from a family member of the twins, who said Laborde admitted that he was never locked in a car and that Simmons did not rape or attempt to rape the sisters.
Dana Brouillette gave a sworn statement in 2020, saying, “He told me that he had had consensual sex with one of the girls and locked the other in the trunk while he was on Little California Road.”
The statement also said that “Karen admitted to me that Keith raped her.”
Laborde declined the interview, but also stuck to the story he had been telling and said that Brouilette’s statement was a lie.
The sisters deny this also, saying that Brouilette is “sick” to have suggested the three pinned the crime on Simmons to cover up an incestuous relationship or violation.
Karen did admit that she had sex with her cousin, but it was not rape. “We were kids. … We experimented. So yes, if that’s consensual, that’s whatever word you want to put to it,” she said, claiming that had happened when they were nine or 10 years old.
With the new information, Marksville district attorney Charlie Riddle III submitted an offer to Simmons for his release, saying that he could get out with time served and have to register as a sex offender.
Riddle said, “40 years would probably be the sentence that we would request in a case like this.” Simmons declined the offer through his lawyer, who said, “He’s not a sex offender.”
Judge Bill Bennett did not believe the new evidence allowed it to be as cut and dry as Riddle did. Instead, the judge freed Simmons on the basis he undergoes a new trial. While offering “no opinion” on guilt or innocence, Bennett said that since the evidence was not turned over to the man’s original attorneys, the man did not receive a fair trial.
“I find that the time limitations have been overcome by the allegations of new evidence and in the interest of justice,” Bennett said.
Riddle has declined a new trial, saying that he didn’t want to put the sisters through “the trauma of another trial.”
After 44 years of incarceration and the cloud of guilt over his head, the charges against Simmons have been dismissed.
Of this, Bonus had to say, “This is the first time he’s ever received justice. And I think Judge Bennett said it on the record and God used Judge Bennett to cut him loose. For 28 years his petitions were being denied.”
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