WITH EDWARDS IN THE
FROM ANGOLA TO FREE MAN
By Forest Hammond-Martin Sr., edited by Tom Aswell
Pelican Publishing, $23
“This is the story of young man who made a mistake — a grave error in judgment. He was black, he lived in Louisiana, he was a star athlete, and he was a first offender, but he was involved in a crime in which a well-known white businessman was killed,” the prologue to this autobiography begins.
In 1973, Hammond (he has since added the hyphenated Martin) was involved in not just a murder, but the death of Baton Rouge businessman Billy Middleton, who was shot during a robbery at his Plank Road Drug Store. The shooter was not Hammond, but Hammond was in the store when the shooting occurred. Furthermore, police found the murder weapon hidden in the attic of Hammond’s house. Hammond admitted his part in the killing. He never went to trial, but rather agreed to a plea bargain, one that he would later regret. The result of his plea was a term in Angola Prison for his “natural life.”
Prisons are full of inmates who protest their innocence. Hammond never denied being at the robbery/murder scene, nor did he deny owning the gun that fired the shots that killed Middleton. He was arrested and held in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison where he was savagely beaten and stabbed by other inmates who thought he was “ratting” on the shooter (who confessed and also took a plea deal). Hammond was 17, and his life was essentially over.
Whether or not you agree with the notion of prison as a rehabilitative institution or with the notion that someone who is at the scene of a murder and does not prevent the crime is not guilty of murder, Hammond’s tale is worth a look. For one thing, the culture of violence and casual habit of young black men going armed with pistols and other weapons is still a problem. Just as they did in 1973, young black men still shoot each other with terrible frequency. The drugs and gangs that were a problem then are still a problem, and the culture that instills the idea of armed robbery as a viable way to get money is still in place.
While the first couple of chapters provide background information on teenage Hammond — he was a star athlete at Capitol High School, his mother was thought to be a suicide for many years, his father was the founder and owner of a successful janitorial business — much of this book is a detailed account of Hammond’s navigation of the penal system. After recovering from the near fatal attack in the parish prison, Hammond arrived at Angola and did what he had to do to survive. Sometimes that meant fighting. He held his own there. In fact, he was so good with his feet and fists that he became a prison boxer, winning the Angola light-heavyweight title.
Hammond also took up legal studies and eventually became an inmate attorney, not a member of the bar but someone who represented inmates in internal hearings. The more he learned about the law, the better he got at it. His original intention was to learn more about the handling of his own case.
What he found out inspired him to challenge his plea arrangement. It was the boxing, though, that got the attention of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards. The governor was a big fan of boxing and boxers, and he arranged for Hammond — nicknamed “Saint” by his family — to work at the governor’s mansion.
Hammond was to serve as a butler at the mansion, which is staffed with inmate servants. As in many other places in his story, Hammond reveals strong anger toward “good white folks.”
“From field niggah to house niggah? Man. After being measured for my butler’s suit, I sat on a green stool in the corner of the butler’s station by the coffeepot and observed the other butlers. I felt I was watching the slaves who had been in America long before I arrived. They knew the white man’s language and habits. I was fresh off the slave ship, having just come from Angola.”
But the job ultimately proves to be Hammond’s salvation. Edwards pardons him just as the governor is leaving office during his last term. Hammond got out and went on to become a professional boxer briefly, then returned to Louisiana to take up a ministry. He lives in Alexandria now and is father to six children and grandfather to seven. The focus of his ministry is youth at risk.
The book is choppy is places, and Hammond-Martin has a habit of introducing people without immediately letting the reader know who they are or how they contribute to the story. His language is always frank and often coarse. However Aswell has done a creditable job of editing, smoothing out the transitions in the story so that it reads well.
Even though this book has some problems, it’s a surprisingly compelling account that will draw you in. Unfortunately, it’s not a new or unusual story, and readers might want to remember that Middleton will never get to tell his side.
Despite his pardon — which gave him his freedom, which is the immediate goal of most jailhouse lawyers — Hammond has not quit trying to get his murder conviction erased. That is one of his motivations in writing this book. Another motivation was to help other young men avoid making the same mistakes that got young Hammond in trouble, and that is a laudable goal.
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