A Life in the Balance: The Billy Wayne Sinclair Storyby Billy Wayne Sinclair, Jodie Sinclair (Joint Author)
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.
- Arcade Publishing
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- 5.75(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.12(d)
Read an Excerpt
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 powera 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 moneyand the fast cars, nice clothes, and easy women it would buymade 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 guna .380 automaticand 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 registerRay 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 holdupback 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 SinclairI 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.
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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