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Vincent Simmons

Longest Incarcerations
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On May 22, 1977, twin sisters Karen and Sharon Sanders went to the sheriff’s department in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, to report that they had been raped nearly two weeks earlier.

In their initial statement to investigators on May 22, the 14-year-old Sanders girls said the assault happened just after 9 p.m. on May 9, and they provided the following account of that night.

They said their cousin, 18-year-old Keith Laborde, was driving them home when they stopped at a 7-Eleven in Marksville, the parish seat, to buy some gas. Laborde began talking with a young Black man near the gas pumps and agreed to give this man a ride. They headed west, down Little California Road, where the man pulled out a gun and made Laborde stop the car. He forced Laborde and Karen Sanders into the trunk and raped Sharon Sanders. He then forced Sharon into the trunk with her sister and cousin and drove a little bit. When the car stopped, the man told Karen to get out. He then raped her vaginally, anally, and orally. After that, the girls said, he made Karen ride up front with him while he drove through Marksville, ending up at a local cemetery. He warned the girls about trying to catch him. In addition, one of the car’s tires was leaking air, and the man stopped and considered stealing a tire from another car. But he didn’t. Instead, he said he had to make a telephone call and left. The girls and Laborde then drove home on the leaky tire. (The Registry doesn’t usually name children in rape cases, but the sisters have publicly identified themselves; one sister wrote a book about the case.)

Sharon Sanders described the man as husky, with maroon pants and a black hat. She said he asked for a ride to a party. She didn’t know his name. She also said that all Black people “looked alike to her.” In addition, she told deputies that she was a virgin and that she had bled after the attack.

Sheriff’s deputies interviewed Karen Sanders separately, also on May 22. Like her sister, she gave a vague description of the assailant and said she didn’t know the man or his name. She said the man asked for a ride home. She said the man had short hair, maybe a tattoo on his right arm, and was wearing a diamond-shaped ring. She also said that the man and his friends hung out around the 7-Eleven.

At 9 a.m. on May 23, 1977, for reasons that are not explained in any court documents, deputies arrested 24-year-old Vincent Simmons of nearby Mansara, Louisiana, and placed him in a lineup with seven other men. One of the persons in the lineup was white. Simmons was visibly in handcuffs. Sharon and Karen Sanders and Laborde each identified Simmons as the assailant. Simmons was charged with two counts of aggravated rape and was later shot in the shoulder during the booking process; deputies said he tried to escape and grabbed an officer’s weapon.

A grand jury indicted Simmons on June 10, 1977. That day, investigators received a report from Dr. F. P. Bordelon Jr., the coroner for Avoyelles Parish, who had examined both girls on May 24, 1977. He said neither girl had any bruising, and that Sharon Sanders’s hymen was still intact. Bordelon’s report on Karen Sanders contained no specific mention that he examined her for signs of anal rape.

On July 7, 1977, the sisters testified at a preliminary hearing. Sharon Sanders again described the attack and the events leading up to it. But her testimony differed from the statement she had made to sheriff’s deputies. Now, she said that Simmons had identified himself prior to Laborde giving him a ride. In addition, she also said that the man had not fully penetrated her during the attack. Karen Sanders testified at the same hearing. At the end of her testimony, Karen said that she and her sister didn’t immediately go to the police because they didn’t know the name of their attacker.

On July 14, 1977, Jeanette Knoll, an assistant district attorney for the 12th Judicial District, moved to amend the indictment to two counts of attempted rape. Knoll said the amended indictment was necessary to comply with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that barred the imposition of capital punishment in rape cases.

Simmons’s trial began the next week in the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse for the 12th Judicial District, before a jury of 11 white men and one Black woman. There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Simmons to the alleged crime.

Both girls testified against Simmons consistent with their testimony at the preliminary hearing. But Karen Sanders now also testified that she had heard the man’s name was Simmons when they were at the 7-Eleven. Laborde testified that he had never met Simmons until that night. He said the two men exchanged words at the gas station, but then they both backed off. He said Simmons had then introduced himself and asked for a ride home.

Simmons testified and said he didn’t assault the girls. He said he was at a bar on May 9. Three witnesses supported his alibi, remembering an altercation that involved Simmons.

Prosecutors presented a rebuttal witness, a sheriff’s deputy, who testified that the altercation happened on May 8. The state also presented testimony from two jailhouse witnesses who said Simmons was wearing maroon pants and a black shirt. In addition, the state created a photo re-enactment of the three witnesses in the trunk of the Malibu, and jurors were allowed to view the car itself.

The jury convicted Simmons of both counts on July 28, 1977. Following his conviction, Simmons was sentenced to two 50-year sentences in prison, to run consecutively. He quickly appealed his case and sentence on largely technical grounds, and the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected that appeal in 1978.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Simmons and his appellate attorneys discovered evidence that prosecutors had not turned over to his trial attorneys. The list included: the coroner’s medical report; transcripts of the May 22 interviews with Karen and Sharon Sanders; and the photos and typed reports from the lineup. This undisclosed evidence formed the basis of a motion for a new trial filed on July 7, 2004. Judge Mark Jeansonne of the 12th Judicial Circuit denied the motion for procedural reasons on August 24, 2004.

Separately, Simmons appeared in three documentaries centered around the sprawling Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, including a film on his case called Shadow of Doubt, which was released in 1999, and The Farm: 10 Down, which was released in 2009.

In 2020, attorney Justin Bonus of New York began representing Simmons, working with attorney Ed Larvadain Jr., from Alexandria, Louisiana. (Larvadain died in 2021, and his son, Malcolm Larvadain then stepped in.) On October 16, 2020, they filed a motion for a new trial that drew from the 2004 motion, evidence uncovered in Shadow of Doubt, and his team’s own investigation into the conviction.

Along with the claims of undisclosed evidence, the motion also contained an affidavit from a woman named Dana Brouillette, a first cousin to the Sanders sisters and Laborde. Brouillette said that she was at home when her cousins drove up after the alleged crimes took place. It wasn’t May 9, Brouillette said. She would have remembered the date, because May 9 was her mother’s birthday. Brouillette said Laborde had scratches on his neck. When asked what happened, Laborde said he got in a fight with a Black man who threw him in the trunk of his car. At this point, Brouillette said, Karen and Sharon began to cry, although neither said anything about a rape. Brouillette said her mother told Laborde to report the crime. He refused.

“Long after the trial, Keith admitted to me that Vincent Simmons did not rape Sharon and Karen and did not put him in the trunk of his car,” Brouillette said. “He told me that he had consensual sex with one of the girls and locked the other in the trunk while he was on Little California Road.” (Karen Sanders told CBS News that she and Laborde did have sex prior to May 9, but it was much earlier, when she was 9 or 10. “We were kids … We experimented. So yes, if that's consensual, that's whatever word you want to put to it.”)

A private investigator also spoke briefly with Karen Sanders on August 10, 2020. According to the investigator’s report, “She was asked if it was possible, she chose the wrong person in the lineup. She informed [me] that she was fairly sure she picked the right person, but mistakes do happen.”

The motion suggested that prosecutors used the Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty to amend the indictment without drawing attention to the lack of evidence supporting Sharon Sanders’s statement to investigators and the grand jury that Simmons had raped her.

“It can hardly be disputed that the inconsistent statements made by the Sanders sisters and Laborde could be used to cross-examine them,” the motion said. “There is no doubt that evidence about the conduct of a lineup can be offered to impeach the identification; and the medical report would be admissible as evidence in chief on the defense case to show that Sharon Sanders was never raped. Moreover, the Brouillette declaration is also admissible on whether the crime of which Simmons was accused – or, given the medical evidence that there was no rape, some kind of sexual assault of Karen and Sharon Sanders – was in fact committed by Keith Laborde, giving all of them a motivation to frame a Black man in order to keep the guilt out of the family.”

The motion also asserted that prosecutors knowingly presented false testimony, not just about the inconsistencies in Sharon’s account of the attack, but also about whether the sisters knew Simmons’s name prior to the lineup.

The motion included an affidavit from Diane Prater, the lone Black juror at trial. At the time, Louisiana allowed non-unanimous verdicts, as long as at least 10 members voted to convict. Prater said that the 11 white men on the jury quickly voted to convict and told her that her vote didn’t matter. “At the time of this trial, Avoyelles Parish was very segregated and Black people did not speak out at the time,” Prater said in an affidavit. “I felt very intimidated and helpless, so I voted guilty.”

As part of the maneuvering over the motion for a new trial, Bonus sought to have District Attorney Charles Riddle of the 12th Judicial District recused from the case, because of a conflict of interest regarding the undisclosed evidence. Judge William Bennett recused Riddle on May 5, 2021. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court reinstated Riddle on December 21, 2021, noting, “The circumstances presented here do not suggest that the district attorney has any personal interest in the cause that would impair his ability to act fairly and impartially.”

Judge Bennett vacated Simmons’s convictions on February 14, 2022, stating that Simmons had not received a fair trial in 1977. After the ruling, Riddle moved to dismiss the charges, saying that there was no purpose in retrying the case. About a month before Bennett’s ruling, Riddle had offered Simmons a deal that would have released him from prison but required him to register as a sex offender. Simmons turned it down.

Riddle said the dismissal was with the consent of Karen and Sharon Sanders, who still maintain that Simmons sexually assaulted them. The two women said outside the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse: “We’ve fought for 44 years, we’ve had enough, we’ve got 44 years, we’re happy with that. We’re tired. We want it behind us.”

After the dismissal, Simmons had to return to the Louisiana State Penitentiary for processing and was released later that day. He said his faith kept him alive during his time in prison. He plans to leave the state. “I want to go somewhere where it’s quiet and I can think and enjoy the moment of freedom,” he said.

In July 2022, Simmons filed a federal lawsuit agaainst Avoyelles Parish, as well as prosecutors and sheriff's office officials, claiming they fabricated evidence against him and suppressed other evidence that could have prevented his conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/22/2022
Last Updated: 7/11/2022
State:Louisiana
County:Avoyelles
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1977
Convicted:1977
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:100 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No