Teenie Rogers, Albert Woodfox, and Billie Mizell receiving awards for their work together.
Billie Mizell’s path to becoming executive director of several restorative prison programs was inspired by traumatic events in Monroeville, Alabama in the 1980s.
“When I was in middle school, there was a murder in a nearby county of a girl who wasn’t that much older than I was at the time,” said Mizell, who grew up in Chickasaw, Alabama. A Black man was arrested and soon convicted and sentenced to death for that murder.
Mizell said that this man, despite having numerous alibis and no physical evidence tying him to the crime, spent eight years on Death Row before being exonerated by attorney Bryan Stevenson. It was years later when Mizell first read about the case, and it sparked a fire in her. “I knew I wanted to work on behalf of people who had been sentenced to death."
By the late 1990s, she had moved to California and was working as a defense investigator for people on Death Row, often specializing in mitigation investigation, which is only done for death-eligible cases. This is because, in a capital trial, defendants who are found guilty are brought back for a second trial – a trial for their life. In this second trial, the evidence presented is not focused on the crime, but whether or not the person on trial will go to prison for the rest of their natural life or, alternatively, be put to death. The defense argues against death, while the prosecution argues for it.
“The prosecution offers what they call aggravation evidence – evidence they say means the defendant deserves no mercy, no right to life. The defense attorney, on the other hand, is supposed to offer mitigation evidence, which helps a judge and jury understand the causative factors that led someone to be on trial for their life. Unfortunately, this mitigation evidence is rarely able to be gathered effectively at trial because defense attorneys have no training in this very specialized investigation. But the prosecution has an expert team that’s been collecting aggravation evidence since the first notice a crime has occurred,” Mizell explains.
If a defendant is convicted and then sentenced to death, the case will likely go through years of appeals, but the appellate process does not offer much, if any, opportunity to offer new evidence that was not presented at trial. So it wasn’t until after decades of appeals that cases would eventually land on Mizell’s desk. She worked on Habeas Corpus petitions; this is often a death-sentenced person’s first opportunity to offer new evidence of innocence and also new mitigation evidence that was never collected for the criminal trial.
“Much of my job centered around unearthing the deep trauma the defendant endured prior to the crime,” Mizell said. “The goal was to connect the dots, from the trauma to the crime, to demonstrate for the higher court that if the twelve people of the jury been offered the critical information they should have received at trial, then they would have shown mercy and chosen LWOP (Life Without the Possibility of Parole) over sentencing someone to their death.”
After a few years at this, a friend asked Mizell to take a look at a case that came to be known as “The Angola 3” case. Three Black Panthers – Robert King, Herman Wallace, and Albert Woodfox – had been incarcerated in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison for over three decades when Mizell first met them. These three men had not been sentenced to death, Mizell says, only because they went to trial during a brief time when there was no death penalty in this country due to a Supreme Court ruling that found it to be arbitrary and discriminatory. Instead, the three men were put in solitary confinement in 1972, for the death of Angola prison guard Brent Miller. No forensic evidence tied any of the men to Miller’s killing, and they always maintained their innocence.
Mizell, stunned at the travesty of justice she learned about, immediately joined the case pro bono. Even though the three men had narrowly escaped a death sentence, Mizell began using many of the same techniques she used in capital cases, conducting a thorough mitigation investigation. Because, she says, she realized that the men would never get a fair chance in a courthouse until the court of public opinion in Louisiana had been swayed. The men had been demonized for decades as the “worst of the worst” – and they had, after all, already been in prison when the they were accused of killing a beloved, young guard at the institution.
During Mizell’s investigation, she also tracked down Brent Miller’s widow, Leontine “Teenie” Rogers.
“I expected Teenie would slam the door in my face when I told her who I was and why I was there,” Mizell said, “but she welcomed me in.”
Mizell soon found that many of Teenie’s questions had gone unanswered. “The social history I could offer her from the mitigation investigation helped answer those questions. Once Teenie was given the opportunity to connect to the humanity of the men she had previously known only as ‘Black Panthers’ and ‘murderers’, she was able to review the case through a different, more objective lens.”
When Rogers learned that each of the men convicted of killing her husband had first gone to jail for Jim Crow laws, she did not know what a Jim Crow law was, so Mizell explained. The widow was shocked to realize that Albert had been arrested for “having no visible means of support” (not being able to immediately produce a paycheck stub when demanded by a patrol officer) and Herman had been arrested for standing too close a building without the owner’s permission (“using a public sidewalk while Black,” Mizell adds). When Teenie learned the men had already been locked up for things that weren't even illegal for white people, she understood they could have easily been set up for the murder of her husband. Angola had an all-white staff at the time – and many of the higher-ups were vocally unhappy about the racial justice organizing the Angola Three had become known for while incarcerated.
“…And working with Teenie,” Mizell adds, I also became more acutely aware that survivors of crimes too often do not get services or care, or a voice in their own needs. Teenie, in many ways, revealed how re-victimized she'd felt by the system."
Becoming friends with both the Angola 3 and with Teenie Rogers solidified Mizell’s drive to work on behalf of people impacted by the justice system. Mizell said that when she learned of the Insight Prison Project (IPP) she realized it was, in a way, similar to the kind of work she did as an investigator. She had worked for years as a mitigation specialist for men and women sentenced to death, looking for evidence not just about the crime itself but why the crime had really happened. “I unearthed the traumas experienced by the defendants, and then took my investigation outward, to the court, for legal relief,” Mizell said. “While IPP was helping incarcerated people take that investigation inward, for healing.”
Insight Prison Project had created a number of programs that spoke to Mizell, including the Victim/Offender Education Group (VOEG) Program, which according to IPP’s website, bridges the gap between punishment and parole with a curriculum designed to allow participants a place to unearth and explore root causes of harm and understand the impact of the harm they have endured and that they have caused, which leads to the choice not to harm again.” In 2014, Mizell became IPP’s Executive Director. Nearly four years later, she handed those reigns over to Leonard Rubio, whom she had first met when he was incarcerated at San Quentin.
Mizell then went on to work on efforts towards Governor Newsom’s executive moratorium on executions in California and has since founded ALIGHT Justice.
ALIGHT’s website says the organization was founded to serve our communities and ignite culture change; Its mission is to create spaces where people can "transform trauma into purpose" through Restorative Justice, transformative processes, and the power of proximity.
“I came to this work from a field that is very similar, but also very different,” Mizell said. “Previously everything I did was rooted in litigation, in the fight, in the win. Being a freedom fighter suited me well and I never expected I would change careers to embark upon this new journey, where ‘fighting’ is not exactly encouraged. It has, at times, been a challenging transition for me.”
However, Mizell clearly feels her work now is profoundly rewarding. “Human life is a miracle — human transformation might be even more miraculous,” Mizell said. I am surrounded every day by those who have created their own miracle in the face of the most difficult odds. That’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.”