This Louisiana prisoner thought he'd only have to serve a decade. 57 years later, he's free
The road to Louisiana State Penitentiary — commonly called Angola after the former slave plantation that used to sit on its 18,000 acres — is one that Andrew Hundley has spent many days driving down its winding path, lined with lush, tall trees.
As the executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project, part of his job includes picking up formerly incarcerated people and reentering them into society.
He first took this road to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at age 15, when he was incarcerated.
“I was scared to death,” Hundley remembers. “I was scared of the unknown.”
But these days, the road gives him a new feeling.
“Now when I drive this road, I'm excited to do so because it's an opportunity to see people that I know and that I care about, and that I'm trying to help,” Hundley said.
One of those people is 84-year-old Lester Pearson, a man who’s been locked up since 1964, despite signing a plea agreement that all but guaranteed he’d be released decades earlier.
“When I came up here, this road was a dirt road. This road was so bad, you could walk beside the bus, that’s how slow it had to go,” Pearson said, laughing.
Pearson was 27 when he first went to court, and he had two options: either go to trial as a Black man in Jim Crow Louisiana and face death by electrocution, or plead guilty to the murder of a man in the French Quarter and accept a life sentence.
But this sentence carried with it a chance of parole after 10 years and 6 months of incarceration. For more than 40 years, people like Pearson who took the plea deal were released in a decade if they exhibited good behavior.
But it would be nearly 57 years before Pearson would walk out of Angola's gate.
“I’ve been locked up for so long that I just got to a place where really I was never looking for this to happen,” Pearson said moments after he stepped outside of the lockup.
On Tuesday, a judge approved the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s petition to re-sentence him, giving him 55 years with credit for all time served.
He is the fifth person to be granted a reduced sentence after sitting in prison longer than he anticipated. Now roughly 55 others await re-sentencing, but unless their cases are from Orleans Parish, where a new, processive DA is doing sentence reviews, that day may never come for many of these elderly incarcerated people known as the 10-6 lifers.
'The forgotten men'
The “10/6 law,” which set the minimum penalty for a life sentence at 10 years and six months, was established in 1926 by Louisiana lawmakers. For 46 years, it was common practice to release people with life sentences after they’d served the 10 years and six months, as long as they showed good behavior during incarceration.
But in 1973, when legislators established different classes for murder (i.e. first degree, second degree), they also raised the minimum sentence for people serving life to 20 years. Three years later, they changed it to 40 years, then they eliminated any chance of parole for people with life sentences in 1979.
The men, often referred to as “the forgotten men,” who had pleaded guilty before 1973, were left in prison, despite the deals they agreed to. It wasn’t until New Orleans’ new DA, Jason Williams, was elected in 2020 that the issue resurfaced.
“We've had a variety of different legislators that have changed the law, that literally broke the promise that was made to these men in court, without explanation, without apology, without discussion,” Williams said in an interview Tuesday.
Williams’ recently formed Civil Rights Division is tasked with reviewing sentences of the state’s longest-serving incarcerated people who were convicted in Orleans Parish. He said what happened to Pearson was not due to negligence.
“I think that the broken promises to Black men, Black people and people of color in the South were purposeful. There were very clear decisions,” Williams said. “Legislators who wanted to appear as if they were being tough on crimes by literally moving the goalposts, which is patently and clearly unfair.”
The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office is the only one in the state reviewing these particular kinds of sentences. For the 10-6 lifers convicted in other parishes, there is no path to release, and they can’t be considered by a parole board because of their changed sentences, Hundley explained.
Williams said he has engaged other district attorneys, including the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore, in discussions about the work his office is doing and is hopeful that other parishes will begin to address what he calls “examples of Jim Crow justice.”
Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart has begun reviewing some cases decided by non-unanimous juries — also called Jim Crow Juries because of the era that they were established and lawmakers’ objective to essentially silence Black jurors — and offering plea deals for reduced sentences.
Civil Rights Division Chief Emily Maw noted that 17 out of the 18 10-6 lifers from Orleans Parish are Black.
Hundley called 10-6 lifers, “an example of the saddest injustice that we currently have as a group in the prison system.”
Hundley, who entered Louisiana’s prison system three decades after Pearson, said when he first began engaging with community activists and lawyers around the state about 10-6 lifers, many people did not know they existed.
“People in the legal field say, ‘Well, no, that's impossible. That's ex post facto — we don't do that to people.’ Well, we did it to people, and they're still there,” Hundley said.
Of the roughly 60 10-6 lifers in Louisiana, Hundley said 18 have pleaded guilty in New Orleans courtrooms. He said there were more, but many of them have died in prison.
Pearson said when he completed the years that he expected to serve, he wrote to the parole board and never received a reply.
“So I said, ‘Well that’s it.’” Pearson said. “They told me life, so I was thinking that’s just what they mean — life. So I’m not gonna worry about getting out.”
A first reunion
Pearson went to prison 17 years before Andrew Hundley, 40, was born. The two ended up sharing a bunk together in the state penitentiary’s Camp F, designated for aging men and trustees who have records of good behavior.
Even though they shared a bunk bed, the two men didn’t see much of each other. They both preferred to work a lot. They described each other as quiet.
“He used to lay up in the bed and if I didn’t look up and see him, I’d never know he was there,” Pearson said about Hundley, who slept on the top bunk.
Still, Hundley said they shared an unspoken bond.
“When you sleep next to someone, you know ‘em and you care about ‘em. That’s part of your routine,” he said.
Hundley said Pearson was one of the last people he saw when he was released.
“... He told me, ‘I’m so happy for you. You’re gonna do well.’” Hundley said. “I remember in that moment, thinking about how much grace that he had. Because if I were in his shoes, I would be jealous.”
Pearson just assumed he’d never see Hundley again. Tuesday’s hearing was their first in-person reunion.
Hundley said he felt tense in the courtroom during Pearson’s hearing earlier that day. Judge Pittman became frustrated when Pearson, who attended virtually using Zoom, had difficulty relaying his understanding of his new sentence, and it overwhelmed him.
“Should I reschedule?” Pittman asked the attorneys multiple times.
Hundley and Parole Project lawyer Jane Hogan took a moment to council Pearson.
“I’m glad they were there. If they wouldn’t be there, I’d still be up in (Angola),” Pearson said.
The learning curve to reentry
Now that he’s out, so much is new to Pearson. On the drive to the Parole Project office in Baton Rouge, the car begins to beep. He wasn’t initially wearing his seatbelt, which weren’t standard equipment in cars anyway until 1964, the year he was arrested.
At the office, reentry specialist Lloyd Jarrow handed him a cell phone. Jarrow, who received parole in 2019 after serving 25 years in prison, told him everyone struggles with learning how to use a cell phone after they leave a lengthy stay in a lockup.
Over the next several weeks, Pearson will take reentry classes to learn how to call, text and use apps like Facebook. He’ll even learn how to pay for gas at the pump and use a debit card.
Pearson is concerned with how he’ll function in the outside world, but he said he’d rather have difficulty learning new things on the outside than still live at Angola.
“I got to get my mind right,” Pearson said, asking Hundley to help him find a job. “I got to think about what I'm gonna do.”
Eventually, he plans to live with his stepdaughter in New Orleans, but for now he’ll stay at a house in Baton Rouge provided by the Parole Project that he’ll share with another formerly incarcerated man. He has his own bedroom and private bathroom. On the night of his release, Hundley and Jarrow showed him his private bedroom and a stocked kitchen pantry.
Pearson looked around his new space and smiled, revealing a wide gap in his front teeth. “That’ll be alright,” he said.
Hundley said he has a list of people that he feels obligated to help get released. Pearson was one of them.
“Hey Lester, I wonder when I left if you ever thought you'd see me again?” he asks Pearson, sitting across from him in the front of his car.
“No, I never thought that,” Lester said.
“Sorry it took five and a half years, But I came back to get him.”
“I appreciate that,” Pearson replied softly, as he looked out through the windshield at the long road, now paved, that he took 57 years ago. “I thought that would never happen, especially going free.”