SLIDELL, La. — From the St. Tammany Parish courthouse to the front gates of Angola Prison and, finally, to his mother's house in Slidell, there were plenty of hugs and joyful tears as Jamal Cox came home after being freed from a life sentence.
“There was never a doubt in my mind. I just didn't know how long it would take,” said Cox’s childhood friend Aisha Smith.
When WWL-TV first heard about Cox's plight in 2017, he was serving a life sentence under Louisiana's three-strikes-you're-out repeat offender laws, even though none of his relatively minor convictions involved violence or drugs. He got probation for the first two: a burglary when he was 18 and illegal use of a firearm 10 years later.
But with the third conviction, aggravated flight from an officer, the hammer came down. Hard. He was sentenced to life in prison.
An appeals attorney ultimately discovered that Cox's conviction, stemming from a six-second chase on a dirt bike, should not have exceeded four years. Instead, he served 10 years of his life sentence before the mistake was corrected.
“I believed that God would do a good thing for a good person,” Smith said.
Cox’s release came in March of 2020, but the celebration was muted. Literally two days after he was freed, the rest of the world began locking itself away at home, as the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down.
Amid the family’s joy and relief was a tinge of sadness and frustration that Jamal was released into another type of lockdown.
“Usually when you're out of circulation that's usually the first thing you want to do is get with family, do stuff,” said his mother, Lorraine Cox. “And we weren't able to do that.”
Cox's long-awaited homecoming party with family and friends was postponed indefinitely. Opportunities to quickly find a job were closed off.
“I knew he going to be coming home,” his mother said, “but I didn't expect we were going to be running into a pandemic and he wasn’t going to be able to do a lot of things he dreamed of.”
But just as he did at Angola, where he became a master furniture maker, a tutor for other inmates and a class-A trustee, Cox was determined to make the most of a challenging situation.
“I knew I loved to drive trucks,” he said. “So I went back to driving trucks immediately, as soon as I possibly could.”
Before he was locked up, Cox obtained a CDL – a commercial driver's license, with ambitions to own his own big-rig truck. His brushes with the law interrupted that plan, but when he got out of prison, the pandemic helped revive the idea.
Trucking was one job he could jump into and stay safe.
“If not the first day, the second day he was working on getting his license,” Lorraine Cox said. “He was on the phone calling different people finding out what he needed to do.”
Within a few months, Cox, 44, got his license reinstated and hit the road. Before long, he was driving 18-wheelers as far as New York, Michigan and Oklahoma. Not only was he easing the pandemic supply chain backlog, but he was also able to stay safely isolated at the same time.
He said he had no trouble dealing with the solitude.
“I believe it helped me mentally, to be able to get on that road and go those long stints, with really nobody,” he said.
Once the brutal fourth wave of COVID passed, Cox's family decided to reschedule his long-postponed homecoming celebration. Now it was just a matter of catching Cox when he wasn't on the road, a window that opened up just recently.
“This gathering is just, it was a long time coming,” Smith said. “But it's OK, it's OK. God did the best thing when he opened the prison doors.
At his mom's house, Cox’s home base when he’s not on the road, he was celebrated by family and friends he hadn't seen in years. They not only celebrated his freedom but his success on the road as a long-distance trucker.
“This is an opportunity to show the world and to show other people that everybody locked up is not bad,” his mom said.
Smith, who lobbied for his appeal from the start, was always confident he would succeed.
“I knew that he would make good on another chance,” she said.
St. Tammany District Attorney Warren Montgomery, who personally reviewed Cox's case after WWL-TV brought it to his attention, also offered congratulations.
"I'm glad we had a legal avenue that we could give him another chance,” Montgomery said. “And of course, he's taken advantage of the chance. And that's what's fantastic about this.”
Montgomery said he looks forward to eventually meeting the man he helped.
“I'm just very happy for him,” Montgomery said. “It seems to have worked out. And that's the way the system should work.”
When WWL-TV began researching Cox's story four years ago, a happy ending seemed like a legal longshot. But in the end, justice prevailed.
“I'm so grateful that you agreed to take the story on and work with us because he's worth saving,” Lorraine Cox said. “That's my son, I know, but I know who he is.”
And for Jamal Cox, staying on the right road, even when he’s a thousand miles from home, has never been sweeter.