A Black man in Louisiana is free after spending 44 years in prison for an attempted rape he says he didn’t commit.
Avoyelles Parish Judge William Bennett on Tuesday overturned Vincent Simmons' conviction Tuesday, finding that Simmons did not get a fair trial because jurors never heard some evidence in his favor, news outlets reported.
Simmons, who will turn 70 on Thursday, told CBS that when he heard the verdict, he thought, “This is it. Man, you've been waiting all these years for this.”
Simmons was convicted unanimously in 1977, by 11 white men and a Black woman, of attempted aggravated rape against 14-year-old white twin sisters and sentenced to back-to-back 50-year prison terms.
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The one-day trial took place 60 days after the alleged assault, KALB-TV reported.
Simmons had to return to the Louisiana State Penitentiary for processing Tuesday after Bennett's ruling but walked out at sunset in civilian clothes and told his waiting sisters, “I won,” CBS video showed.
Evidence not shown at trial included a police photo lineup from which Simmons was identified as the culprit, and in which he was the only handcuffed person. Also, jurors were not shown a coroner's report about his medical examinations of the girls.
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Those were among many documents on a website titled The Vernon Simmons Project, along with a police interview in which one of the alleged victims said all Black people “look alike.”
The alleged incident occurred May 9, 1977; the girls reported it two weeks later and the medical exam report was dated June 10.
Simmons obtained the documents in 1994. It was the 17th time Simmons had filed to get the conviction overturned, CBS reported.
One girl's police interview includes, crossed out but still legible, the self-contradictory, “all blacks (sic) look alike to me so that I would know him if I ever saw him.” A notation on the transcript dates it May 22, 1977.
"I'm not ruling on whether or not Vincent Simmons is innocent or guilty. But I am telling you, after 44 years in prison he deserves a new trial,” the judge said, according to the network.
District Attorney Charles Riddle and sisters Sharon and Karen Sanders, now 59, said they still believe he’s guilty. But they also said they won’t take the case to trial again.
“He went in guilty. He's guilty now. And guess what — he will die guilty,” one of the sisters said.
The Associated Press generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault but the Sanders sisters years ago came forward publicly and have spoken to the media numerous times.
In a statement sent to The Associated Press, Riddle told the judge that if Simmons were retried and convicted, 40 years likely would be the maximum sentence. “That would be what we would recommend,” he said.
But he said the sisters “have been through enough.”
“This is not a declaration of innocence at all. We attempted to free him months ago because he has served enough time,” Riddle said.
CBS reported that after leaving prison, Simmons said he wanted a crawfish dinner, and wanted to leave Louisiana and start again somewhere else.