Time is running low for more than 50 people on Louisiana’s death row who are seeking clemency as Gov. John Bel Edwards’ term nears its end, say lawyers who have worked on death penalty cases in the state.
With pro-capital punishment Attorney General Jeff Landry widely seen as the frontrunner in the fall gubernatorial election, the state’s Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole may not have enough time left to review the dozens of clemency requests and pass their recommendations onto Edwards before he leaves office in January, said Samantha Kennedy of the New Orleans-based advocacy group the Promise of Justice Initiative.
Kennedy spoke at a panel about abolishing the death penalty at Loyola University’s law school Thursday (Sept. 14).
Edwards publicly came out against the death penalty earlier this year. Responding to the announcement, attorneys representing 51 of Louisiana’s 57 death row inmates filed requests to modify their sentences to life in prison. That number has since grown to 55.
But the prisoners must first go through hearings with the pardon board, an effort that has faced roadblocks from Landry, who in July issued a legal opinion that said a procedural rule kept the board from considering them, leading the board to deny the clemency requests. Landry’s opinion, however, does not have the force of law. In August, Edwards asked the board to reconsider the decision, which it quickly did, scheduling the first round of hearings for October.
District attorneys have joined Landry in opposing the move for mass clemency, including East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore, who asked a judge this week to halt hearings for three prisoners who were convicted in the parish.
Kennedy called the prosecutors “obstructionists” who are trying to bar the board from even considering the requests. The board can recommend — or decline to recommend — pardons to the governor.
“At the end of the day, the board listens to the hearings,” Kennedy said. “They can say no. … And for some reason, all these actors don’t even want the opportunity for the board to just say no.”
In the past 50 years, only two death sentences have been commuted in Louisiana, the most recent in 2010. The state has not carried out an execution since 2010.
The lawyers, along with former Louisiana death row prisoner Shareef Cousin, argued that the death penalty has fundamental flaws, given the state’s high rate of conviction reversals for death sentences that have completed appellate review. Between 2010 and 2020, 22 people on Louisiana’s death row had their sentences reduced or were exonerated, according to The Associated Press.
Death row in Louisiana is also geographically and racially skewed, with Caddo and East Baton Rouge parishes accounting for almost half of current death sentences. Most death row inmates are also Black.
Cousin, who was sentenced at the age of 17 to death in 1996 for a French Quarter murder before his case was dismissed in 1999 over findings of improper conduct by prosecutors, puts it simply: the system “doesn’t work,” he said.
“I was a kid,” Cousin said. “I am very disappointed that I have to stand up here and share this with you and say that this is something that happened to me.”
Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola, also painted death row as a deeply punitive experience, describing the stories of John Thompson and Glenn Ford, two exonerees who died at the ages of 55 and 65, respectively — relatively early deaths that Armstrong tied to their long periods of confinement.
Armstrong said the existence of the state’s death row “defies reason,” referencing that the state in 2016 spent more than $1 million defending its refusal to install air conditioning on death row, though it could have spent much less to simply install the cooling units.
Legislative efforts to eliminate capital punishment in the state have failed in recent years.
“We have statutes that allow the government to kill people,” Armstrong said. “And they’re not even reliable about it.”
Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:
Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.