This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for its newsletters, and follow it on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
ANGIE — It had been a long day of mowing brush in the heat, so Jeffrey Fornea and his 69-year-old father rested on their back porch in this small town in Washington Parish. They were sipping Cokes, feet propped up, when they heard a gunshot.
A group of young men in bandanas approached, Jeffrey testified later in court. One hit his father in the head with a pipe. Another took Jeffrey’s wallet. They forced father and son inside and made them open the family safe. The men took about $700, some jewelry, and a red Toucan Sam lunchbox.
Five men were arrested for the robbery in September 2011. Four received prison sentences of 15 to 20 years.
But one, 23-year-old Demenica Westbrook, faced a different fate. In addition to robbery, prosecutors argued that Westbrook had committed aggravated kidnapping by helping coerce the Forneas into the house. In 2013, a jury found Westbrook guilty, and he received the mandatory sentence: life without parole.
Now 34 years old, Westbrook has exhausted his appeals. Louisiana’s governor rarely grants pardons, so Westbrook has only one hope for eventual release: a new Louisiana law that lets prosecutors review old cases and reduce sentences they deem extreme, as long as a judge agrees.
“I’m not asking for immediate release,” Westbrook said in a phone interview. “I’m asking, ‘Don’t let me die in here.’”
Louisiana is one of five states that has recently passed prosecutor-initiated resentencing laws, along with California, Washington, Illinois and Oregon. Five others — New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Georgia and Maryland — considered similar bills this year,