“48 Hours” investigates claims, allegations behind La. man’s 1977 conviction
▶ Watch Video: Sneak peek: “Please Don’t Tell”
Vincent Simmons was released from a Louisiana prison in February after serving 44 years for attempted aggravated rape of twin sisters. He says he didn’t do it – but the sisters say he’s guilty. Are the sisters telling the truth or was this a lie to protect a family secret? “48 Hours” contributor David Begnaud investigates the case against Simmons and hears for the first time from a woman who says she knows the truth.
For identical twins Karen and Sharon Sanders, life is broken into two parts: before May 1977 — and after. They say what happened one night that May changed everything.
Karen Sanders: Every time I talk about it, it makes me feel like I’m 14 again.
Karen Sanders: The limitations it put on our life, like with anxiety … depression—panic attacks … It’s crippling, really. … It’s taken a lot from us.
Back in 1977, the 14-year-old twins were living with their grandparents in the quiet, small town of Marksville, Louisiana. And for the most part, they say they were happy there staying busy and enjoying the little things in life.
Sharon Sanders: I— was all about—
Sharon and Karen Sanders: Makeup —
Sharon Sanders: — and perfume and being prissy (laughs). And Karen was more outside playing in the dirt.
Karen Sanders: This is true.
Life was simple … until it wasn’t.
David Begnaud: What makes it so difficult for you, Karen, 44 years later, to even talk about it?
Karen Sanders: Well, it’s—a lot happened that night.
The twins say it all began May 9, 1977, when their cousin, Keith Laborde, picked them up so they could help him clean his house…
By the time they finished cleaning, it was just beginning to get dark, Keith was driving them home, and that’s when they say he stopped at that gas station and encountered a Black man.
Sharon Sanders: He walked up to the car and told Keith that he almost hit him. And Keith, you know, did not. … And Keith would tell him, he didn’t want a fight. And he said, “I don’t fight. I shoot.”
David Begnaud: The man said this?
Karen Sanders: Yes—
Sharon Sanders: The man said it instantly. Karen went inside to pay for the gas. And … me and Keith were talking to this man. And we exchanged names … And he said his name was Simmons.
The twins say any tension between Keith and the man soon lifted, and that’s why they say Keith agreed to give the man a ride.
Karen Sanders: We were like, Keith, you know, —don’t. And he’s like, “it’ll be OK. It’ll be OK. “
But they say they knew it wasn’t OK when the man directed them to that desolate area of Little California Road and threatened them.
Sharon Sanders: He told us that before we could get a gun, he would shoot us.
Karen Sanders: Uh-huh.
Sharon Sanders: Which we did not have a gun. … So, we knew he had a gun.
They say the man ordered them out of the car and forced Keith into the trunk.
David Begnaud: Keith’s how old?
Karen and Sharon Sanders: Eighteen.
David Begnaud: So, he got in the trunk?
Sharon Sanders: Yes—
Karen Sanders: He did.
Sharon Sanders: He told us to take off our clothes. Karen started to run at that point. And I yelled and she stopped.
Karen Sanders: He said, “This one’s gonna give me trouble.” And so, he opened the trunk and he put me in the trunk with Keith. And he had Sharon.
Sharon Sanders: I took off my clothes. Told me to get in the back seat and I did. And he told me how to lay and I did.
Karen Sanders: I can hear Sharon cryin’. And, of course, I can’t take it. So, I’m bangin’ on the trunk and I’m banging and I’m screaming, “Take me. Take me. Leave her alone. Take me. Take me.”
Sharon Sanders: Karen was back there making all kinds of commotion. And things didn’t work out for him with me.
Karen Sanders [to Sharon]: It’s all right.
Sharon Sanders: And he was very frustrated. You could see it and feel it. And he got very aggravated and told me to put my clothes back on.
David Begnaud: When you say things didn’t work out for him, what do you mean?
Sharon Sanders: He tried to penetrate and was unsuccessful. But at the time, I was 14. I did not know he was unsuccessful. I really thought—
Karen Sanders: You had lost your virginity—
Sharon Sanders: — I had lost my virginity. I had no clue.
Afterwards, Sharon says she was put in the trunk with Karen and Keith – and then, the man started driving.
Karen Sanders: We just found each other’s hands and began to pray. And then the car stopped. And he said, “You, out.”
David Begnaud: And pointed at you, Karen?
Karen Sanders: Yes. … He told me to lay in the back seat. … He, um—he raped me.
Then, with Sharon and Keith still in the trunk, Karen says the man just wanted to talk.
Karen Sanders: It was like nothing had happened, that we were like best friends; that we were just hanging out.
David Begnaud: And you went along with it, just talking –
Karen Sanders: Absolutely. … To keep him calm.
David Begnaud: And how long did this go on for?
Karen Sanders: To me, a lifetime. … He told me he came from a large family … and about where he had lived and all this and he had just gotten back from Texas.
She says when they stopped talking, the man raped her again — multiple times.
Karen Sanders: I remember, like, laying in that back seat and his chest – I mean, his heaviness on my chest and the sweat … And it was just disgusting.
She says he then drove them to a local cemetery where he got out of the car.
Karen Sanders: He opens the trunk, and he lets them out. … He’s going to let us go.
Sharon Sanders: And he told us, if you tell anyone, I know where y’all live. I’ve got friends. He said, “And I will come back.”
Sharon Sanders: And we all swore to each other that we would not tell a soul.
They say just the fear of what might happen if they told, kept them silent for two weeks — until Karen says she couldn’t keep it in anymore. She says she confided in Keith’s sister.
Karen Sanders: And I said, “But please —please don’t tell anyone. Please don’t tell anyone.” … She said, “I’m not gonna tell anyone.”
Sharon Sanders: And it just unraveled from there.
The next day, Keith’s parents found out—and soon, Karen, Sharon and Keith all ended up at the sheriff’s office. Karen and Sharon each gave statements reporting that they had been raped and less than 24 hours later, on the morning of May 23, 1977, 25-year-old Vincent Simmons was taken into custody as he was walking down the street.
David Begnaud: Did you know Karen and Sharon Sanders?
Vincent Simmons: Never seen ’em before in my life.
LINEUP, ARREST & TRIAL
It was May 23, 1977, when Vincent Simmons was brought to the sheriff’s office, which used to be on the second floor of the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse, in Marksville.
Vincent Simmons: And they took me and put me in a lineup.
Karen, Sharon and Keith were all there to see if they could identify a suspect.
Sharon Sanders: We’re all three … in the room.
Karen Sanders: But we’re not all walking up to the window at the same time—
Sharon Sanders: No.
Karen Sanders: Keith goes first. Keith writes the number down on a pad.
Karen Sanders: I walk up, I look at him … And I go to the pad; I write his number down. And then Sharon goes up to the window, looks out—and writes her number down.
Sharon Sanders: And writes the number down.
David Begnaud: What number did you all write?
Karen and Sharon Sanders: Four.
Karen Sanders: And then they said –
Sharon Sanders [to Karen]: You remember that? Oh my gosh, yeah. Of course you do.
Karen Sanders: Then they said to us, “Y’all have all picked the same man.”
That man they identified was 25-year-old Vincent Simmons. He was from a big family in the next town over from Marksville, and this wasn’t the first time he found himself in the sheriff’s office.
Vincent Simmons: I didn’t have a daddy, you know, so basically, I grew up on my own, looking out for my little sisters … I was doing wrong. I was going into stores … just to get some food to feed them.
Vincent was convicted of a home burglary at the age of 18. While incarcerated, he escaped from the jail in Marksville. He lived on the run in Texas for nearly six years until he came back to town — shortly before that lineup.
Karen Sanders: And when I walked up to the window, and I looked … I had no second doubt … I know exactly who raped me that night.
After Sharon, Karen, and Keith, ID’d Vincent, he says he was brought upstairs to the jail where he waited while an officer was writing something down.
Vincent Simmons: I’m sitting on the chair in handcuffs. When he gets through, he said, “I want you to sign that.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “This is a confession saying that you committed this crime.” I said, “What crime?” You know, he said, “Rape of those two white girls.” I said, “I don’t even know these white girls.”
Vincent says when he refused to sign the confession, the officer knocked him down, and as they struggled, another officer shot him.
Vincent Simmons: Boom. I was burning through my chest, you know. And I fell on the floor … When I woke up, I’m in the hospital.
The two officers involved tell a very different story. They say Vincent grabbed one officer’s gun and was pointing it at both of them when the second officer shot Vincent in the shoulder— in self-defense. Whatever the truth, Vincent was never prosecuted for that incident. Instead, less than two months after he was shot, he was brought to court to face Sharon and Karen.
David Begnaud: Less than 60 days after he was arrested, Vincent went on trial. Is that a pretty rapid … time?
DA Charles Riddle: In 1977, I would say, for major cases, they went to court quickly.
Charles Riddle was not the district attorney back then, but he is now and is familiar with the details of the case.
David Begnaud: What was the evidence against him?
DA Charles Riddle: The testimony of the witnesses — the victims.
Karen, Sharon and Keith all took the stand.
Karen Sanders: Walk into a courtroom. Your parents, everybody that loves you, is sitting there.
Sharon Sanders: And seeing him for the very —
Sharon and Karen Sanders [in unison]: — first time.
Sharon Sanders: We have not seen him since the lineup. And then seeing him, face to face … was really hard.
Karen Sanders: Of course, I had to put my hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, which is all I had, anyway.
They all testified that on the night of the rape Vincent had told them his last name.
Karen Sanders: Believe it or not, all night long, we called him Simmons. He told us to call him Simmons.
David Begnaud: At trial … they all say, “Simmons, Simmons, the man told us his name was Simmons.” What’d you think then?
Vincent Simmons: I thought they were crazy. I actually thought they were crazy. You mean to tell me I’m going to do something to y’all and let y’all know my name? … I’m going to tell you who I am? No. That don’t make sense, man.
The jury got to see Keith’s car and a photo police had taken of Karen, Sharon and Keith reenacting how they fit in the trunk. When it was the defense’s turn, Vincent took the stand.
Vincent Simmons: I told the jury that I was innocent. I didn’t rape nobody.
Vincent’s lawyers also called three alibi witnesses who claimed that Vincent was at a bar on the night of the alleged crime. The bar owner said Vincent was there all night—he got into a fight—and police were called. But the prosecution called a police officer who said the bar fight was on another night.
DA Charles Riddle: I don’t think they had much of a defense.
After a two-day trial, the jury sided with Karen, Sharon and Keith. Vincent Simmons was found guilty of two counts of attempted aggravated rape.
Vincent Simmons: I was shocked. Guilty? I ain’t did nothing.
David Begnaud: When the verdict came back, guilty, unanimously, how did that feel?
Sharon Sanders: Sigh of relief. We knew we were free.
Vincent was sentenced to two consecutive 50-year terms — 100 years behind bars.
Sharon Sanders: We thought we’d never have to face him again.
But Vincent refused to give up hope.
Vincent Simmons: I wanted to prove that I’m innocent, man. I never knew these people.
More than four decades later, Justin Bonus, a newly minted lawyer from Brooklyn, New York, would become involved in Vincent’s defense and was immediately skeptical of the prosecution’s case.
Justin Bonus: I looked at the discovery, I was like, “Well, everything they said at trial was a lie. It’s all a lie.” … There’s nothing that supports what they say.
WHAT THE JURY DIDN’T HEAR
Generations of men have labored in the fields at Louisiana State Penitentiary. It is the country’s largest maximum-security prison, built on the site of a former slave plantation called Angola.
Vincent Simmons: You know we had to work seven days a week. … ’til it gets dark. …That’s how Angola was.
Since the day that cell door closed behind him, Vincent Simmons has been working to overturn his conviction. In 1993, 16 years after that guilty verdict, he finally succeeded in getting a copy of the prosecution’s case file.
Vincent Simmons: Mailman came, and he gave me this big old envelope. When I opened it up— man, I was in shock.
Inside that envelope were items that Vincent had never seen before, including copies of the initial statements that Karen, Keith, and Sharon gave to police. Remember how all three testified at trial that they knew their attacker’s name?
Karen Sanders: “He told us to call him Simmons.”
But as it turns out, when they first spoke to the investigators, they didn’t say that. Defense attorney Justin Bonus has since reviewed those statements.
David Begnaud: When the girls initially went to police, they didn’t say the name “Simmons?”
Justin Bonus: No.
David Begnaud: What name did they say?
Justin Bonus: They didn’t give a name.
And Bonus noticed something else in those statements. Sharon used the N-word to refer to her attacker and said, “all Blacks look alike to me”— which she does not deny saying.
David Begnaud: So, what did you say when they asked you to identify the man?
Sharon Sanders: I said, “All Blacks look alike.”
But still, Karen, Keith, and Sharon, all picked Vincent out of that lineup. And Bonus says he may know why. The photo that was in that file appears to show the lineup. In it, Vincent is the only one in handcuffs.
David Begnaud: When you saw that lineup photo, what’d you think?
Justin Bonus: What? I said this is crazy. Nuts. … Highly suggestive. When you put the cuffs on him, you’re telling them, that’s who we want you to pick.
But Charles Riddle, the current district attorney, says that photo was taken after the twins ID’d Vincent.
DA Charles Riddle: They call it the lineup … it was a photo of the lineup after he was identified and placed in cuffs.
David Begnaud: But how do you know it was after?
DA Charles Riddle: Because the girls told me that.
David Begnaud: So, when you picked him out of the lineup, was he wearing handcuffs –
Karen Sanders: No.
Sharon Sanders: No, he was not.
Karen Sanders: Not at all.
And Karen says they initially didn’t tell police the name Simmons out of fear.
Karen Sanders: I mean, we were scared of him.
Sharon Sanders: And see, I don’t know why I didn’t.
Karen Sanders: I mean, I think it’s –
Sharon Sanders: Other than I was –
Karen Sanders: — fear. We were afraid of him.
And there’s another item in that file that Bonus says is critical and was never seen at the trial. It’s the report from a doctor—who was also the local coroner. He examined the girls two weeks after the reported rape, and did not document any signs of sexual assault.
David Begnaud: How big a deal do you think the coroner’s report … plays in this story?
Justin Bonus: Massive.
And Bonus says that report suggests that Sharon was still a virgin—the doctor wrote that her hymen was intact. But Charles Riddle says that report does not prove that the twins were not raped.
DA Charles Riddle: Because the definition of rape is slightest penetration. … And the part about no sign of sexual assault? After two weeks, it’s very probable that there would be no sign of sexual assault.
Bonus thinks the jury should have had the chance to consider all of that at trial.
Justin Bonus: His attorneys … They had nothing. They went in there flying blind with their arms tied behind their back in a boxing match. … That’s literally what it was.
David Begnaud: So, you’re telling me the original statements that the girls and Keith gave to police, where they could not identify this individual—
Justin Bonus: Right.
David Begnaud: —that was never heard by the jury?
Justin Bonus: Absolutely not.
David Begnaud: And the medical report from the coroner was never heard by the jury?
Justin Bonus: Right.
David Begnaud: And the lineup photo? Not seen by the jury?
Justin Bonus: No.
David Begnaud: If the statements from the girls had been presented at trial …
Justin Bonus: Right.
David Begnaud: If the coroner’s report had been known and presented at trial…
Justin Bonus: Right.
David Begnaud: Do you think Vincent still would’ve been found guilty?
Justin Bonus: No. Absolutely not.
Back in 1993, when Vincent first got his hands on that evidence, he made it his mission to get his case in front of a judge. He filed numerous pleadings over multiple years, but no court ever ruled in his favor.
DA Charles Riddle: And not a single judge felt like there was enough evidence, not the appellate courts, federal courts, state courts, supreme court.
Vincent was hoping that the parole board at the prison might have more sympathy. So, in 1997, 20 years into his 100-year sentence, he had his first hearing with them. And it was filmed as part of a documentary called, “The Farm,” which profiled inmates at Angola. Vincent showed them the evidence that his defense did not have at trial.
[From “THE FARM”]
VINCENT SIMMONS [addressing board members: We didn’t have none of this evidence. None of this evidence was presented before the jury.
BOARD MEMBER: You were the only one handcuffed in the lineup?
VINCENT SIMMONS: I’m the only one.
BOARD MEMBER: OK, if y’all step out we’ll discuss the case.
Vincent hoped the board would rule in his favor.
BOARD MEMBER [to other board members]: In 20 years, I’d come up with something too.
ANOTHER BOARD MEMBER: Oh yes, yes — he did it. Ain’t no doubt in my mind.
But they would not.
BOARD MEMBER: Mr. Simmons after listening to testimony and going over the reports the board has voted at this time to deny your request for parole.
Vincent Simmons: I was hopeless, but … I know the truth. And no matter how many times they knock you down, keep getting up.
Almost 20 years later, Justin Bonus watched “The Farm” documentary with his wife.
Justin Bonus: And we were shocked. … She told me, you know, “You should take this case. … She basically said, “You need to write him.” And it wasn’t really a suggestion. (laughs) It was, “write him!” … … and that’s what I did.
EXPLOSIVE NEW ALLEGATIONS
David Begnaud: You’re a Brooklyn guy. … You go down to Marksville.
Justin Bonus: I felt like “My Cousin Vinny.” … I mean, it was like, country, OK?
By early 2020, Justin Bonus had become Vincent Simmons’ lawyer. He had just a year of experience under his belt and was warned that the odds were against him.
Justin Bonus: “It’s over, like, he doesn’t have any more appeals,” I was like, “Nah. … That’s not true. … It’s never true. Absolutely not.”
Vincent had been fighting unsuccessfully for decades to overturn his conviction. All the while, Karen and Sharon Sanders remained firm about his guilt.
Karen Sanders: We have no reason to lie. Why would we lie? Why would we let someone … spend their life in prison if we even had the slightest doubt that it wasn’t him?
Not long after Vincent’s ill-fated parole hearing, documentary cameras were rolling again in the late 90s when he and the twins agreed to a reconciliation meeting. It’s where victims and offenders come together to try and heal.
KAREN TO VINCENT: We came today not to free you from your prison, but to free us from our prison.
SHARON TO VINCENT: Today I am closing the door to my pain. … I’m letting go.
When the time came for Vincent to speak, he had questions.
VINCENT SIMMONS: My questions going to be directly based on your statement that you gave—
KAREN & SHARON: No, we’re not going there.
And that’s when the meeting unraveled.
SHARON SANDERS: What are you doing here then? Since you’re innocent, what are you doing here?
VINCENT SIMMONS: Y’all put me here.
SHARON SANDERS: We did? No, a choice that you chose to make put you here.
VINCENT SIMMONS: I mean the truth was hidden
KAREN SANDERS: OK. I think we’re—I think we’ve had enough. I think it’s kind of going sour.
SHARON SANDERS: Vincent, maybe one day you can get out of your pain, of your misery.
Justin Bonus: They didn’t let him speak … because they don’t view him as a human being.
Bonus wanted to put a spotlight on the case and really dig deeper, but he needed some help. So, he turned to Jason Flom, a recording industry executive known for launching the careers of Katy Perry, Matchbox 20, and Lorde, among others. Flom is also a criminal justice advocate and he hosts a podcast called, “Wrongful Conviction,” which has featured big name guests like Kim Kardashian.
Jason Flom: When I heard about Vincent’s case … I was just like, “This is another level.” … I had to do something about it.
Flom featured Vincent’s case on his podcast.
JASON FLOM [Wrongful Conviction” podcast]: How could anyone get convicted on the basis of this?
Jason Flom: This is a man whose life was stolen away from him.
And he gave Justin Bonus money to go out and hire a private investigator in Louisiana named Brian Andrews.
Brian Andrews: Justin actually asked me to be the boots on the ground … take statements, gather information.
Andrews tracked down Diane Prater, the lone surviving juror from Vincent’s trial and the only African American on the jury. Turns out, she says she never wanted to convict Vincent. Prater was in her 20s at the time of trial and says she still remembers her reaction to the twins’ testimony.
Diane Prater: When they … told their story, I’m, like, “Ain’t no way in the world that happened like that.” … Put a Black man in your car at that time?
David Begnaud: You didn’t believe it because at that period in history, you just couldn’t see White people giving a ride to Black people?
Diane Prater: Correct.
David Begnaud: Was there a lot of racism in Marksville?
Diane Prater: Yes, it was. It was in Marksville. It was … everywhere.
And she says the jury foreman told her that her vote wouldn’t matter. In 1977, Louisiana juries could convict a defendant with only 10 out of 12 voting guilty.
Diane Prater: So, I say to myself … it ain’t going to do me no good to say nothing … But I never, never, never believed Vincent was guilty.
The private investigator also tried to talk to relatives of Karen, Sharon, and Keith. He ended up conducting a videotaped interview with Keith’s cousin, Dana Brouillette — and she told him a shocking story. Dana said that Keith told her in a bar, long after the trial, that Vincent Simmons was never with them on Little California Road that night.
DANA BROUILLETTE [to Brian Andrews]: He came out and told me. There was never a Black man.
Instead, in a sworn affidavit, Dana says that Keith told her that “he had consensual sex with one of the girls and locked the other in the trunk.”
DANA BROUILLETTE [to Brian Andrews]: He had gone down Little California Road and he locked Sharon in the trunk, and he said the sex between him and Karen was consensual. He said but the other one was a little hellcat. … That’s the one that put the scratches on his neck.
In the affidavit, Dana says Keith had scratches on his neck. She told the private investigator that she believes Keith and the twins made up the story about a Black man to explain away those scratches and
Brian Andrews: Blew my mind the things that she said.
David Begnaud: Had Dana ever told anyone that?
Brian Andrews: To my knowledge – I don’t think she had.
DANA BROUILLETTE [to Brian Andrews]: I maybe should have come forward a long time ago … I really did think the man got released.
And Dana’s allegations didn’t stop there. She also gave the private investigator a copy of a Facebook message exchange that she says she had with Karen in October 2020. Karen and Dana were talking about how Keith had allegedly made sexual advances towards female relatives. We asked Karen about that.
David Begnaud: You said … “I didn’t realize how sick he was. I thought it was only me.”
Karen Sanders: I don’t remember saying that.
David Begnaud: Yeah, because that’s the message from you. … So what did you mean by that?
Karen Sanders: OK. We need to cut right now. Cut this. Can we cut for a second?
David Begnaud: Yeah. Yeah.
Right then, Karen said she was not ready to talk about that exchange with Dana. But two weeks later, in a follow-up interview with both her and Sharon, she admitted that years before she says they were attacked, when she was a child and Keith was a teenager, something happened.
David Begnaud: Did you have consensual sex with Keith Laborde?
Karen Sanders: OK, let’s put it like this: We were kids … We experimented. So yes.
David Begnaud: How old were you when it happened?
Karen Sanders: I have—I cannot—honestly … I don’t know. Nine, 10, maybe?
David Begnaud: And is this the first time you are saying this publicly?
Karen Sanders: Yes, it is.
Karen Sanders: But that has nothing to do with what Vincent did. That’s two separate incidents. … David, think about it … if me and Keith had had consensual sex way, way before, now why is he locking us in the trunk of a car? Why is he taking us down a dirt road?
But Bonus believes they wanted to cover up what happened that night.
Justin Bonus: It gives motive for why they would lie. … It shows that Karen always was hiding something from day one. … Keith was 18, Karen was 14.
Justin Bonus: So, what do they do? They blame a Black man.
David Begnaud: To be clear, was Keith the perpetrator that night?
Sharon Sanders: No.
Sharon Sanders: He was a victim also. Keith was a victim —
Karen Sanders: That night—
Sharon Sanders: He was not—
Karen Sanders: He was a victim. He stayed in that trunk the whole time.
I went to Keith Laborde’s house to speak with him about all of this. No one answered the door, so later, I called him.
VICTORY FOR VINCENT
David Begnaud: Hello, Keith? This is David Begnaud with CBS News.
When reached by phone, Keith, now 63 years old, denied ever having sex with his cousin, Karen. He said they just, “played around like children.” And he also insisted that whatever had happened between him and Karen had nothing to do with what Vincent Simmons did that night.
Keith Laborde: That goddamn n—– is guilty. I don’t give a f— and yeah, he’s a goddamn n—– and you can put that on TV. I ain’t scared of him.
Despite the allegations concerning Karen and Keith, District Attorney Charles Riddle says he believes the right man was convicted.
Charles Riddle: I’m firmly convinced that he’s guilty. … I don’t believe that the cousin was the one.
But Bonus was more determined than ever to see Vincent walk free. And in April 2021, the district attorney made an offer that would allow for just that. Riddle said he felt like Vincent had done enough time.
Justin Bonus: Vincent could have walked right out the door.
But there was a catch.
Justin Bonus: Vincent would have had to been a sex offender though … Vincent turned that down and said, “I am not a sex offender. I didn’t do this. I am innocent. I’m not a sex offender.”
David Begnaud: What’d you think when you hung up the phone—
Justin Bonus: I mean, that’s it. We’re going to war.
Bonus kept fighting — and in February 2022, he finally got a hearing where a judge would decide Vincent’s fate once and for all. The day of the hearing, as Karen and Sharon made their way into the courthouse, they paused to pray. When Vincent Simmons arrived in a prison van, he was carrying a Bible. A group of supporters greeted him. They were cheering.
Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom as Judge William Bennett delivered his decision.
David Begnaud: What did the judge decide?
Justin Bonus: He decided to give Vincent a new trial because of the constitutional violation that he didn’t receive a fair trial.
Vincent’s conviction was thrown out due to the evidence that he himself had obtained almost 30 years earlier — and the fact that his defense team didn’t have it back in 1977. Judge Bennett made it clear though that he did not place fault on anyone for that. Instead, he found that the speediness with which the case went to trial made it likely that the original district attorney on the case, Eddie Knoll, didn’t even have all the evidence himself at that time.
David Begnaud: So just to be clear, you believe that in 1977, the police didn’t turn over key evidence to the district attorney?
Judge William Bennett: That’s the only explanation feasible and logical after studying everything that I did. That’s it.
David Begnaud: Are you blaming the police—
Judge William Bennett: No, I don’t believe anybody intentionally hid anything. … It’s just the way it happened because it was fast.
In a court affidavit, the original DA, Eddie Knoll, said he “did not hide or deny Simmons any evidence,” nor did he “prosecute him because of bias.” And he continues to believe that Vincent is guilty. And he’s not the only one that feels that way. Current district attorney Charles Riddle.
David Begnaud: Do you believe a man who was convicted at a trial that was not fair should’ve ever served a day in prison?
DA Charles Riddle: Legally?
David Begnaud: Legally.
DA Charles Riddle: OK, legally no.
David Begnaud: But he did.
DA Charles Riddle: Yes—
David Begnaud: 44 years.
DA Charles Riddle: —and then the judge decided that. Okay, let me tell you, he deserved to serve the 44 years.
David Begnaud: Why?
DA Charles Riddle: Because he’s guilty.
Judge Bennett was careful to say he has “no opinion on the guilt or innocence of Vincent Simmons.” With his decision, it was now up to District Attorney Riddle whether he wanted to retry the case.
David Begnaud: You stood up and said what?
DA Charles Riddle: I said that “He served enough time,” and that, “We’re not gonna prosecute him again”
Justin Bonus: In the eyes of the people and the constitution, he is presumed innocent. And when Charles Riddle dismissed that case, that presumption of innocence carries.
JUSTIN BONUS [in court to Simmons]: You’re free, brother.
Vincent is a free man, but for Karen and Sharon, nothing has changed.
KAREN SANDERS [in the courtroom]: He went in guilty. He is guilty now. And guess what? He will die guilty. So, I’m, I’m happy. I got 44 years.
The twins say they accept the judge’s decision, but they are still hurt by it.
Sharon Sanders: The legal system didn’t just fail him, it failed us in many ways also.
While Vincent has his freedom, they say they still don’t have theirs.
Karen Sanders: It’s frustrating because no one sees our bars. … They don’t see our prison. … We still have our anxiety. We still have our depressions. We still have our fears. … Our bars are real. And if you look deep enough, you can see them.
Judge Bennett is sympathetic toward the women, but he is confident in his decision. The case holds extra meaning for him because his father, now deceased, was one of the many judges who denied motions filed by Vincent over the past years. But that was before Vincent had gained access to the prosecution’s file.
Judge William Bennett: He and I had talked about the Vincent Simmons case years ago. … And I know if he would be here, he today would have done what I did.
David Begnaud: What’s on your heart? Because I can see the emotion.
Judge William Bennett I did the right thing.
Just hours after the judge delivered his decision, and right before the sun set, Vincent Simmons walked out of Angola. He went in when he was just 25 years old and was released three days before his 70th birthday.
Later that night, he shared a celebratory meal with his family and friends.
Vincent Simmons [making a toast]: This is going to freedom …
David Begnaud: What’s it like, being out of prison?
Vincent Simmons: Oh, man. It’s, it’s a joy that is unexplainable, really.
But with that joy, comes challenge. Adjusting to life outside prison walls has proven to be difficult. So much has changed since 1977.
Vincent Simmons: Ooh, man. … New technology. I’m just like a little baby, got to learn.
David Begnaud: What are the simple things that you enjoy now?
Vincent Simmons: Breathing the free air … walking outside … basically it’s freedom … to just enjoy the moment.
Vincent Simmons intends to go back to court to seek compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
Under Louisiana State law, if he is unable to present clear and convincing evidence of his innocence, he is entitled to nothing.
Produced by Stephanie Slifer, Sarah Prior and Murray Weiss. Stephen A. McCain is the development producer. Hannah Vair is the field producer. Lauren Turner Dunn in the broadcast associate. CBS News producers are T. Sean Herbert, Chris Weicher and Maryhelen Campa. Doreen Schechter is the producer-editor. Richard Barber and Marlon Disla are the editors. Patti Aronofsky is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.