It might sound outrageous to think that anyone would be given a life sentence without parole for stealing $9, but that is exactly what happened to Alabama resident, Willie Junior Simmons.
Okay, but surely there is more to it than that, right? He must have killed or done irreparable harm to someone in the commission of the crime. At the very least, he had a weapon ready for use on his victim. He surely had a long history of violent crimes.
No. None of that is the case.
Willie Simmons did have a criminal record, but his three previous convictions were all for nonviolent crimes. However, because of them, he was tried under the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA) in place in Alabama when a then 25-year-old Simmons committed his fourth crime in 1982.
Simmons had previously served nearly 10 months in 1975 and just shy of 16 months in 1979, both sentences were for receiving stolen property. He was also sentenced to three years for grand larceny in 1979. His first crime had been committed before he was 18 years old.
Simmons was born into a poor household in Enterprise, Alabama, in 1957. He had joined the U.S. Army after his earlier crimes, but become addicted to drugs while serving overseas. On the day of his arrest, he told Essence that he was high and looking for money to get his next fix.
So, what exactly was the crime that led to Simmons being put behind bars for the rest of his life? He tackled a man and wrestled him to the ground to steal his wallet. Inside, there was the paltry sum of $9. Simmons was caught and arrested only a few blocks away.
In a trial that lasted a mere 25 minutes, Simmons was convicted of first-degree robbery. Simmons told Essence that his court-appointed lawyer never called a witness or sought a plea deal. Because of his previous convictions, he was treated as a habitual offender and given the maximum sentence.
After his conviction, Simmons was taken to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. He remained there from late 1982 until 2021 when he was transferred to nearby Fountain Correctional Facility.
Simmons has repeatedly requested a review and reconsideration of his sentence. Due to a change in the law in 2014, he will be unable to make further appeals. His only recourse now is clemency from Governor Kay Ivey. A petition on Change.org asking for his release drew more than three million signatures, calling Simmons continued detention “an unjust and expensive failure.”
There have also been numerous attempts from publications such as Essence, NPR, and the Washington Examiner to spotlight his case and call for his release. Even Kim Kardashian has advocated on his behalf. All efforts have resulted in denial despite him being a model prisoner during the time he has served. Forty years later, at the age of 65, he remains behind bars.
The Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union continues to call on the Alabama legislature to repeal the HFOA.
Despite the grim outlook for his case, Simmons continues to hold on to hope that he will one day be free again. In his interview with Essence, he told them:
“My hope is to get out of here, settle down with a woman and do God’s will. I’d like to tell people about how bad drugs are.”