In 1965, at the age of twenty, Billy Wayne Sinclair unintentionally killed a man in a bungled convenience store hold-up. Quickly tried and convicted, he was sentenced to death and spent the next seven years on death row. In 1972, his sentence was commuted to life.
Sinclair has spent his time in prison trying to improve the heinous conditions. At great personal risk, he was instrumental in integrating the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Working undercover for the FBI inside the prison, he exposed a pardon-for-sale scheme at Angola that involved highly placed state and prison officials. Prisoners who bought pardons were released.
We all know that life in prison ain’t grand, but the utter horror of it springs from the pages of this autobiography, written by a one-time death-row inmate. Billy Wayne Sinclair is now serving a reduced 90-year sentence for murdering a Baton Rouge convenience store owner in a robbery gone wrong more than three decades ago.
His story of an adult life spent in one of Louisiana’s harshest prisons is amazing, not only because he has survived with his soul intact, but because it provides such a raw look at the inner workings of a system bent on revenge, not rehabilitation. Sinclair claims he was brutally beaten by his father as a child.
But that abuse has been upstaged by the stabbings, suicides, and rapes he has witnessed while in custody of the state. His descriptions of lives lost behind bars are gripping and tragic. Along the way, Sinclair also chronicles bloody integration battles, drug dealing, and political corruption. And he falls in love.
Coauthor and wife Jodie Sinclair was a TV reporter working on a death-row story when the two met. Their unlikely pairing consumes much of the latter half of the book, although the story falls short in conveying the emotional depths of the relationship. The Sinclairs may not win the sympathy of every reader, but they have succeeded at providing a rare view of what happens to prisoners long after the crimes and court dates are over.
This blistering memoir of a reformed killer, still incarcerated after more than 35 years, points to deep inequities in the correctional system in this country. After a brutal childhood, Billy Wayne aimlessly took to stealing cars and robbing convenience stores and served jail time.
Then, in 1965, he killed a store owner in a botched robbery. Following a trial in which favorable witness statements were suppressed by the DA, he was initially sentenced to death. In 1972, due to the Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia, his sentence was changed to life in prison. He served his first 20 years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, where he studied law, wrote for a groundbreaking prison newspaper (for which he won the prestigious George Polk Award), married a journalist and participated in a grievance committee that assisted in the difficult racial integration of the prison in the 1970s.
Sinclair and his wife detail 1980s-era federal investigations into pardon selling, mail fraud and administrative corruption. In this dense, multilayered tale, readers may see ambiguities in Sinclair’s crime and in his prison experience (he says that hadn’t intended to kill the store owner during the robbery and claims that other killers were paroled while a powerful clique of friends of Sinclair’s victim made sure he remained in prison).
This is a powerful tale, and readers will be shaken by the sorrow, greed and corruption they encounter in it. 16 pages black and white photos not seen by PW. (Jan.)
Forecast: Readers with an interest in crime, punishment and human rights will want this book but, in addition, the human interest of Sinclair’s story should reach out to a wider audience, helped by major publicity. Arcade is planning a first printing of 40,000; wife and co-author Jodie Sinclair will do a 10-city tour plus a 30-city TV satellite tour and a radio satellite tour. Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
In 1965, Billy Wayne Sinclair shot and killed a man while robbing a convenience store in Baton Rouge. At the age of 20, he landed on Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. After a Supreme Court decision in 1972 temporarily abolished capital punishment, Sinclair began a life sentence. “The Row taught me patience,” he writes. “It burned away my habit of recklessness when I grew frustrated in the pursuit of a goal. … The trick lay in believing that I could actually reach my goals.”
Though not a work of distinguished prose, A Life in the Balance is a numbing tale of crime, punishment and redemption. Sinclair writes of his journey from a brutalized childhood at the hands of a sadistic father to a horrific world behind bars. The book has graphic scenes of murder, mutilation and turf wars over drugs and sexual slavery at Angola in the 1970’s. And although Sinclair reflects a dawning awareness of how his crime devastated the victim’s loved ones, his story is the tale of a whistle-blower.
Sinclair became an editor of the penitentiary’s own newsmagazine, The Angolite, along with Wilbert Rideau, who had also moved from Death Row to a life sentence. The two men transformed The Angolite into a cutting-edge prison publication that won George Polk and Robert F. Kennedy awards for journalism and played a role in bringing reforms to Angola. Rideau has given many interviews and speeches outside the prison and been called by one warden “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America.” Although the state pardon board has long recommended his release, no governor has been willing to sign papers freeing a high-profile black prisoner.
If Rideau is a victim of his own celebrity, Sinclair saw his quest for freedom stymied differently. In the mid-1980’s, the chairman of Gov. Edwin W. Edwards’s pardon board, Howard Marsellus, began selling pardons to inmates. Sinclair got word to the F.B.I., sparking an investigation. Federal authorities moved Sinclair to another prison for fear he might be murdered in retaliation. Sinclair believes the trail of money led into high places, including the governor’s office; this was the case prosecutors set out to build. When Marsellus took a plea bargain, the federal attorney indicted the speaker of the Louisiana House. But the jury delivered a stunning acquittal, largely because of Edwards’s testimony. He said that his administration had its own probe underway when Marsellus copped his plea. Marsellus went to prison; the investigation collapsed.
As a result, Sinclair became a pariah in the highly politicized prison system. He writes of a bitter falling out with Rideau. Worse yet, he made an enemy in Edwards, the state’s most powerful politician through the mid-1990’s. In an unrelated scandal, Edwards was recently convicted of extorting money from casino operators and was himself sentenced to prison last month.
Sinclair wrote A Life in the Balance with his wife of 19 years, Jodie Sinclair. But there is not much about why Jodie, who had raised three children and was married to a college professor, fell for a man behind bars. The relationship cost her a job covering politics for a Baton Rouge television station. She found a job in Texas and stood by her man.
“Twenty-two years without a disciplinary write-up meant nothing to the parole board,” Sinclair writes of his latest bid for release. In December 1999, three judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied his lawsuit seeking parole.
Sinclair will eligible for release in 2011. Rideau’s conviction was recently overturned by the same appeals court, and the local prosecutor has said he will retry the case.