Amazon Prime released this film Friday. It examines the notion of equal treatment under law in the story of a wife who raises six sons while her husband is locked up in Louisiana’s notorious state prison, Angola.
Sibil and Robert Richardson were buying a house and raising four sons on the day when, desperate for cash after a promised business loan fell through, she drove him and his nephew to a credit union in Shreveport. Robert drew his gun but did not shoot, collected about $5,000 and was arrested almost immediately after he left the building.
The two were charged by the state of Louisiana and offered plea deals. Sibil took hers, and Rob did not. She was sentenced to 12 years and released in 3.5 years.
Rob, guilty of armed robbery, got a tougher deal. Louisiana law allows judges to assign prison sentences of 5 to 99 years for the armed robbery, which gives sentencing judges an enormous amount of leeway.
The judge in his case sentenced Rob to 60 years in prison with no hope of parole.
NB: Bank robbery also can be prosecuted as a federal crime. In the federal system, the maximum prison term for armed robbery of a bank is 25 years.
Quite a disparity there.
The film focuses less on the final effort to get Rob a chance at parole and more on home movies that Sibil, who calls herself Fox Rich, has made for him over the years. We see their sons as toddlers, as they grow up and as the twins start college and the oldest son receives his white coat as a newly minted dentist.
The film necessarily cannot share much about Rob’s experience, but Fox is a remarkable woman. She speaks often at public events about the longer sentences typically issued to Black felons.
(Think about it: What justifies such a long sentence for a first-time failed robbery with no shooting and all the money recovered immediately? What is to gained by sentencing a family man unlikely to repeat his single bad act to an effective life sentence?)
While Fox is angry, and with cause, she also is practical. She works to feed her family. She is active in her church. She is unfailingly deferential in phone calls to inquire about a long-promised but often-delayed answer to her question about Rob’s possible eligibility for parole. (My fuse goes off fast when I get the runaround from bureaucratic paper pushers — but it may be easier for me to get results in such cases than for a person who is African American.)
Most of all, Fox is honest. She visits the robbed credit union and apologizes personally for the robbery to the two women who work there. When they suggest she should apologize also to her relatives for the difficulties visited on them, she does that too. Her sincerity and steadiness redound to the benefit of her husband and children.
The film ends on an upbeat note, sorta, but the message — unequal justice under law — stands.
The able film director, Garrett Bradley, won a prize for Time at Sundance in January. She takes an interest in African American topics, and we can expect to see more of her as her career progresses.
One minor quibble is the one-word title. It can suggest the time spent in prison or time lost in the raising of children, but it inevitably requires an explanation to potential viewers. Still, it is difficult to imagine a better alternative.
Rob Richardson was held in Louisiana’s state prison, known as Angola. In fact, he is not the only Black convict who has had complaints about the place. Following are three other stories, all of them worse. We can hope that the state’s justice system has improved since these men were sentenced.
Alexander was 21 when he was found guilt of a rape he absolutely denied in 1980 after his incompetent lawyer presented virtually no defense in a one-day trial. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
(The lawyer also promised to file an appeal but did not do so. The lawyer was disbarred later, but too late to help Alexander.)
In 1996, the Innocence Project took up the matter and learned that the most important physical evidence — a rape kit cultured from the woman’s vagina and a semen-stained towel — had been destroyed by 1985. (Troves of potential DNA evidence were tossed in those years before they even could be evaluated, but the action in Alexander’s case was unusually swift.)
Alexander continued to maintain his innocence. In 2013, more evidence from the crime scene was discovered in the police crime lab. Three hairs, collected but never studied, were tested for DNA and found to have come from someone who was not Alexander and not the victim.
This constituted reasonable doubt — actually considerable doubt — about Alexander’s guilt. He was released early in 2018 after serving nearly 38 years in Angola.
This was another black-white rape case. Baton Rouge police showed multiple lineups of suspects to the victim, always including Williams, and they urged the victim to identify Williams as her assailant, even though she had said that the man who attacked her was taller than she was — Williams was shorter — and had a scar on his chest, which Williams did not.
Eventually, under pressure from the police, she said that her attacker was Williams.
Williams, 22 at the time, was convicted and sentenced in 1983 to life without parole.
In 2019, just 36 years later, a judge ordered a review of the bloody fingerprints found at the crime scene. The fingerprints proved that Williams had been telling the truth. He was released from prison after spending most of his adult life there for a crime he had not committed.
Ford was a yard man who worked behind a Shreveport jewelry store. The store owner, Isadore Rozeman, was found shot dead in the store in 1983. Ford was known to be in the vicinity at the time of Rozeman’s death and, afterward, with two other men, sharing materials stolen from the store.
Some of the stolen goods were found in one of the other men’s homes; the same house had pawn shop receipts issued to Ford from the store.
Ford was arrested and charged with murder. His court-appointed lawyers had no experience in criminal law, and prosecutors issued peremptory challenges to assure an entirely white jury in a district whose population was 50 percent African American. The judge in the case also was white. Ford was convicted without a murder weapon linking him to the murder and with evidence from confidential informants — most likely including the other two men (suspects) withheld. He was sentenced to death in 1984, sent to Angola and spent almost all of his time there in solitary confinement.
The Innocence Project raised many challenges — white judge, all-white jury, among them — but Ford was stuck until a confidential informant told police in 2013 that someone else confessed to him that he had committed the murder that had sent Ford to prison.
Ford was released in 2014, after 30 years of very hard time. He was diagnosed a few months later with the Stage-3 lung cancer that progressed rapidly and killed him less than a year later.