A Life in the Balance: The Billy Wayne Sinclair Story


Sentenced to death in 1965 at age 20 for an unpremeditated murder during a bungled holdup of a convenience store, Billy Wayne Sinclair spent his first seven prison years on death row. When the death penalty was abolished, his sentence was commuted to life. Three-and-a-half decades later, Billy Wayne is still behind bars-feared by many politicians and prison officials for his well-known incorruptibility and unrelenting crusade for prison reform.

Author Biography: An accomplished ...

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Sentenced to death in 1965 at age 20 for an unpremeditated murder during a bungled holdup of a convenience store, Billy Wayne Sinclair spent his first seven prison years on death row. When the death penalty was abolished, his sentence was commuted to life. Three-and-a-half decades later, Billy Wayne is still behind bars-feared by many politicians and prison officials for his well-known incorruptibility and unrelenting crusade for prison reform.

Author Biography: An accomplished writer, he became coeditor of The Angolite-America's foremost prison magazine-for which he won the PEN award, the Robert F. Kennedy journalism award, and the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
...a numbing tale of crime, punishment and redemption...Sinclair reflects a dawning awareness of how his crime devastated the victim's loved ones...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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 b & w 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 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559705905
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing
  • Publication date: 2/18/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 339
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Billy Wayne Sinclair established himself in prison as a jailhouse lawyer, defending the rights of fellow prisoners, and as a journalist. Released from prison in 2006, he is a senior paralegal at the John T. Floyd Law Firm. He lives with his wife, Jodie, in Houston, Texas.

Jodie Sinclair, Billy Wayne Sinclair’s wife and coauthor, received her Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia University. She resides in Houston, Texas.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It was December 5, 1965.

    Only five months earlier I had been released from a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where I had served a stint for stealing a car and taking it across a state line.

    Now I was sitting in a stolen car, casing a Pak-A-Sak convenience grocery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A steady drizzle of cold rain occasionally lashed about by the wind could be seen falling under a nearby street light. I shuddered, taking another swig from the bottle of Jack Daniel's sitting between my legs. I needed courage, something to pump up the balls. I was about to pull my first armed robbery.

    I reached over and removed the .22 caliber pistol from the glove compartment. It had a short chrome barrel and a white plastic handle. Despite its small size, the gun scared me. It represented raw, uncompromising power—a finger squeeze and it could snuff out a life. I opened the cylinder and counted five bullets. Shutting it, I left the firing chamber empty as a precaution.

    I was a punk who wanted to take the money and run. I had no intention of hurting anyone. I figured the gun would scare the store clerk the way it scared me. I shivered, telling myself it was the wind, and lit a cigarette, only to see my hands shake. A life of crime was not what it had been cracked up to be in the joint. I slammed my palm against the steering wheel, muttering, "Fuck it."

    A survival instinct warned me to drive away. It was like an ominous, foreboding voice telling me to go. I chalked it up to fear of taking the store down alone.With each small biting swig of whiskey, it became essential for me to walk through the door and pull the pistol. Destiny beckoned. I could not resist the force telling me to enter the store.

    Two months earlier an ex-convict friend named John Alexander had come to New Orleans where I was working as a stock clerk in an office supply company. He told me he had escaped from a Texas jail and needed my help. It was natural that I help him. While in prison I had embraced a criminal values system, known as the "convict code," according to which an ex-con should always lend a helping hand to a con "on the run."

    Alexander also dangled the lure of a "big score" at a small bank in his hometown in East Texas. It would bring sixty to one hundred thousand dollars, he said. The prospect of that much money—and the fast cars, nice clothes, and easy women it would buy—made me walk away from a steady job to chase the fool's gold of a petty thief. I had been brainwashed in prison with embellished stories about "scores and whores," and I wanted a piece of the action.

    But there had been no escape. And there was no big score. Alexander was lying. We ended up on a petty crime spree: stealing two cars in Beaumont and Birmingham; and robbing three convenience stores in Biloxi, Shreveport, and Baton Rouge, and a hotel in Miami. I was the lookout. We only had one gun—a .380 automatic—and Alexander always carried it.

    I didn't get a gun until November when Alexander bought me the .22 caliber pistol in a Dallas pawnshop. He had suggested a larger caliber weapon.

    "You want something that will knock his dick in the dirt."

    But I opted for a smaller weapon.

    "No, I just want something that will make him give up the money."

    Our criminal partnership didn't last long. We split up in Dallas in early December following an argument and near fight when he threw down on me. I headed back to Louisiana with a few hundred bucks in my pocket, driving a stolen car. I wanted one more score to get enough money to catch a merchant ship out of Mobile to South America in hopes the heat would blow over.

    I turned the key, giving life to the little green Chevy II. I wheeled it into the parking lot of the store. I got out of the car, glancing toward a young store clerk sweeping the pavement.

    With a tentative gait, I walked into the store and looked around. The clerk behind the counter, a large man named J. C. Bodden, was waiting on an elderly lady. I turned to my right, walking down an aisle. I picked up a can of shoe polish and a box of cereal, leaving my fingerprints on both items. I waited until the lady left before approaching the counter.

    Bodden had sensed trouble the moment I walked through the door. He watched every move I made, priming himself for a confrontation. He slammed the cash register shut just as I walked up to the counter. He was committed to resisting the robbery.

    "Put all the money in a sack," I said, pulling the small pistol from my waistband.

    Bodden was not afraid.

    "I don't have a key to the register—Ray has it," he said, pointing to the clerk sweeping outside. Bodden stepped away from the register, placing himself in a position visible to the outside. I tried to take control of the situation.

    "Open the register," I demanded. "You just had it open for that lady."

    Bodden backed toward the end of the counter as he whistled to the clerk outside.

    "Ray has the keys."

    An elderly couple named Katherine and Grundy Sampite drove up and parked directly in front of the store. Mr. Sampite got out of the car and entered the store. He picked up a newspaper from a rack near the door and walked toward the counter.

    "Stay put," I said, as he turned to walk parallel to the counter. "This is a holdup—back away from the window."

    Sampite complied, but Bodden used the old man's entry to move outside the counter. He now stood at the end of it, sandwiching me between himself and Sampite.

    "Get back behind the counter and open that register," I shouted.

    "Get out of here," Bodden replied, taking a couple of steps toward me.

    A second customer walked into the store. He froze when he realized a robbery was under way.

    "Back down that aisle," I ordered.

    "Stay where you are, everybody stay put," Bodden shouted over my instructions.

    I pointed the gun at the floor and glanced back toward the door. Ray Neyland, the clerk outside, had stopped sweeping and was easing toward it.

    "C'mon in here!" I yelled.

    Moving toward me, Bodden gestured with his hands for everyone to stay put. I pulled the trigger. The "click" of the hammer hitting an empty chamber was unusually loud in the quiet store.

    "He's shooting paper wads," Bodden yelled. "He's firing blanks."

    That mistaken belief propelled Bodden forward. I gave ground, backing up toward Sampite.

    "Stay back, man," I pleaded. "I don't want to hurt anyone."

    But Bodden had made his choice. He moved toward me, as though he were ready to make a tackle. I pointed the pistol at his leg and fired, hoping to stop his advance. I just wanted to get away. The muted explosion stunned everyone. Bodden froze, wavering on the edge of eternity. He looked down at his thigh. A patch of red blood was forming on his green pants. He still didn't believe, or care, that I was firing real bullets. He looked up at me. Our eyes locked, forever. Then he charged, screaming something I didn't understand. I turned and ran from the store. He picked up a broom as he chased me, lifting it over his head. I fired a shot as I ran out of the store across the parking lot. The errant bullet struck Bodden under the left armpit, traveled across his chest cavity, and nicked his aorta. He sat down on the pavement and bled to death in a matter of minutes.

    I jumped into the little Chevy and backed up with tires squealing. I saw Bodden sitting on the pavement before I sped away. I still didn't realize he had been mortally wounded.

    "Call the police, call the police!" he was screaming, pointing in my direction.

    I sped away from the store, taking back streets and side roads to make my getaway. I knew nothing about Baton Rouge so I drove on blind instinct.

    "Bulletin, bulletin, bulletin," the voice on my car radio blared. "We just received a report that a store clerk was shot to death during an armed robbery on Greenwell Springs Road. The police have issued an all-points bulletin for Billy Wayne Sinclair in connection with the murder."

    As I sat in the car behind a deserted barn, listening to the wail of sirens, I stared at the little pistol in my hand. I had just used it to kill a man. I dropped it on the seat. It looked so harmless lying there. I leaned forward, pressing my forehead hard against the steering wheel. The word "murder" seared an indelible imprint on my brain. I was no longer Billy Wayne Sinclair—I was a murderer. Sartre has written that "the act of murder changes the victim into a thing and, at the same time, the murderer into an object."

    "God, please forgive me," I whispered.

    I heard the squawk of a police radio before I realized a slow-moving car was coming down the gravel road. The sheriff's car stopped, shining a spotlight around the barn. Paralyzed with fear, I prayed the officer would not get out for a closer look. I knew he would kill me if he did. The seconds passed through a time warp. I was like a blindfolded man awaiting the impact of the firing squad's bullets. The police radio squawked again and the car sped away, its siren piercing the night.

    I got out of the car and tried to suck as much of the night air as I could into my lungs. My legs trembled as a muscle spasm erupted in my back. I walked to a nearby puddle of rainwater. Kneeling, I soaked my handkerchief and wiped the fear-sweat from my face. I looked out across the night knowing that I would never be the same; that I had fallen through the center of the world into a doomed colony of outcasts.

    For a moment I thought of suicide, but instead of putting the gun to my head and letting my body be found in the winter mud, I got back into the car and sped away. I didn't have the guts to pull the trigger.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2005

    On the Brink: A Life in the Balance

    From the first page the reader is caught up in the life of Billy Wayne Sinclair. Sinclair recounts how he was abused and beaten as a child. He got into a life of crime as a teenager. He was convicted of murder at the age twenty. The writing is dramatic. Descriptions are realistic. The narrative covers events that span over thirty-five years. These events are related in a narrative that details political corruption in the Louisiana State Prison System. After years of living on a code of loyalty established by prison inmates, the author shaped a personal code of ethics. At great personal risk, Sinclair has been unwilling to compromise these new values. He has since exposed avariciousness, crime, and duplicity within the parole and corrections system. I highly recommend this book for all elected officials in community, state, and national politics and to anyone involved in prison administration, prison reform or prisoner¿s rights.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2003


    I respect the things Billy Wayne has accomplished while being in prison. The things he has accomplished while being in prison - such as "The Angolite" & help in federal investigations. But -- I am a Sinclair. Billy Wayne happens to be my cousin. Most of my family is extremely unhappy with his book. The so called "brutal childhood" he claims caused him to have a life of crime -- Yeah, right. He made the decisions himself to commit those crimes - and pull that trigger. He has no one to blame but himself. As to the writing of the book, it's difficult to read. Not just because I get so mad I can only read a few pages at a time, but the wording just isn't natural for me. Others members of my family that I have spoken to, all of us avid readers, are having the same problem. It's like being back in school reading a text book on a subject you have no interest in. It just doesn't sink in unless you read the paragraph over again. If you do want to purchase this book, buy it to learn about his accomplishments while being in prison, not for what he is blaming his crimes on. He has earned some respect after having it totally ripped away.

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