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Former NFL star Kellen Winslow II makes bid from prison to reduce his sentence

By Brent Schrotenboer, USA TODAY

VISTA, Calif. – Former NFL star Kellen Winslow II has submitted a handwritten petition from prison that argues the physical trauma he suffered during his football career entitles him to a reduced prison sentence under a new California law that went into effect in 2022, according to court records obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

Winslow, 39, was sentenced to 14 years behind bars in 2021 after being convicted of sex crimes against five women in San Diego County, including the rape of a homeless woman in 2018 and rape of a woman who was unconscious in 2003.

He mailed his habeas corpus petition in November from the state prison where he is currently incarcerated in Tehachapi, California. It’s unclear where it will go next or if it has much of a chance with Winslow representing himself without an attorney. 

What is Winslow's argument?

Since August, the former Cleveland Browns first-round draft pick has been active with handwritten petitions and other submissions to the court in San Diego County as he tries to get out of prison earlier and move to Florida whenever he is released, in part because he hopes to begin a coaching career there. He currently is not eligible for parole until July 2028, according to state records.

“Petitioner contends he suffered physical trauma as a result from mild traumatic brian (sic) disorder, as well as potentially CTE. and this trauma was a contributing factor in the commission of the offense,” Winslow wrote by hand, referring to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease associated with head trauma in football. “Petitioner now seeks a remand for resentencing based on AB 124. Petitioner argues because physical trauma contributed to the offenses … the court is required to impose the lower term (of the sentencing considerations).”

What is AB 124?

Assembly Bill 124 was a criminal justice reform measure signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021 and was intended to help criminal defendants who previously experienced “psychological, physical, or childhood trauma, including, but not limited to, abuse, neglect, exploitation, or sexual violence.” The law requires or encourages this consideration during plea bargaining, sentencing or resentencing in an effort to account for the trauma a person experienced before being arrested that may have helped lead to their crimes.

“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card for anybody who had trauma in their life and now wants to do some perpetrating of their own,” said attorney Frankie Guzman, who is not involved in the Winslow case but helped draft the legislation for the National Center for Youth Law.

Generally speaking, Guzman said that while it’s possible a defendant could get a hearing on this matter in such circumstances, it would be up to a judge to decide whether there is enough evidence to justify resentencing a defendant to a lower term under this measure.

Winslow’s previous attorneys from his criminal trial proceedings didn’t return messages seeking comment.

“We have not received Mr. Winslow’s habeas,” San Diego County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said. “Once it has been received we will evaluate it for next steps. We do believe that Winslow received a fair trial and sentence for this serious sexual assault case. We will review everything, but with justice for the victims at the forefront of our consideration.”

Winslow's trial and plea deal

In his handwritten petition, Winslow requests the appointment of counsel and cites other state justice reform laws in his request for resentencing. His petition is signed by him and issued “in pro per,” meaning he is representing himself without a lawyer in this matter.

At his first criminal trial in 2019, a San Diego County jury convicted the former University of Miami tight end of forcible rape of a homeless woman, exposing himself to a woman who lived near him, along with lewd conduct against a 77-year-old woman at a local gym. But that jury hung on other counts against him, setting the stage for a retrial on some of those charges later that year. He then reluctantly agreed to plead guilty as a part of a plea agreement  – a deal that helped him avoid the risk of life in prison if he instead had chosen to let another jury decide his fate.

He ended up also pleading guilty to the rape in 2003, as well as assault with intent to commit rape against a hitchhiker he picked up off the street in 2018. All of the crimes for which he was convicted came against women who were disadvantaged, incapacitated or in their mid-50s or older.

“He’s a sexual predator,” Superior Court Judge Blaine Bowman said at his sentencing in March 2021. “He preys on vulnerable victims and is very brazen in the way he carries out his crimes.”

Winslow's head trauma claims

Winslow’s attorneys had argued in Bowman’s court before his sentencing in 2021 that Winslow had suffered possibly more than 1,000 blows to his head during his football career, giving him brain injuries that drove him to commit a series of sex crimes. They also cited a 2005 motorcycle accident that added to his head trauma.

Bowman still sentenced him to 14 years in accordance with the plea deal that his attorneys had reworked with the local prosecutor.

Winslow’s petition argues that new criminal justice laws appeal retroactively and that he can now benefit from “a resentencing hearing in the interest of justice.” He focuses particularly on the case from 2003, when he was 19 and the woman who accused him of rape was 17. It states he wants to submit “mitigation evidence based on factors to assess his growth and maturity from that youthful offender who committed the alleged 2003 offense while under the age of 25.”

Winslow's future plans

In a previous handwritten petition, Winslow also asked the court to waive the prohibition against him leaving California during his parole period so he could then move to Florida.

“Defendant attended and played football for a college in Florida, (the University of Miami) has friends or extended family that will agree that a fresh start in a state, where he excelled would be in his best interest, to further or advance a career in coaching football which is what he would like to pursue as soon as he is given that opportunity to do upon release,” said the petition signed by Winslow.

Winslow also noted that there “are no 'victims’ residing in that community or in the state of Florida.”

San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Dan Owens replied in December that his office didn’t oppose that on the condition that Florida agrees and Winslow shows proof of payment or posts bonds to fulfill the $10,000 restitution fine ordered as part of his sentencing.

“As of September 22, 2022, the outstanding restitution fine balance was $6,507.50,” Owens stated.

In November, Winslow also filed a peremptory challenge against Judge Bowman, saying Bowman was prejudiced against him and that he doesn’t believe he can have a fair hearing before him.

Winslow earned about $40 million in his NFL career and last played in the NFL in 2013. He is the son of the Pro Football Hall of Famer by the same name, who also has claimed to have suffered head problems from football.