Louisiana’s death row inmates make rare mass petition for commutation

All but one of Louisiana’s death row inmates are racing against the clock to persuade the state’s Democratic governor and the clemency board to commute their sentences to life in prison, ahead of a possible transfer of political power that could see the state aggressively resume executions in 2024.

Fifty-six of the 57 prisoners sentenced to death in Louisiana have joined forces to make a rare mass petition for mercy. They are asking John Bel Edwards, the governor who is coming to the end of his term, to act on his anti-death penalty convictions and order the pardons board to consider their pleas.

Should the board recommend clemency, Edwards would have the executive power to take the 55 men and one woman off death row and place them on life without parole.

Such a move would be unprecedented and game-changing for the death penalty, advocacy groups say.

“This large clemency effort is historic and important,” said Samantha Kennedy, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans. “Commuting these death sentences would be a model for the south, and give a big push to the move away from capital punishment in the US.”

Impetus for the mass petition came from remarks made by Edwards in March in which, for the first time since he became governor in 2016, he openly expressed his opposition to the death penalty. He pointed to the risk of executing innocent people, and said the practice of taking lives in the name of justice offended his Catholic faith.

Launched in June, the mass petition is in effect an invitation to Edwards to act on his own words. But the death row inmates know that they are in a race against the clock.

Edwards must move within the next two weeks to instruct the clemency board, whose five members he appoints, to hold formal hearings into each of the 56 applications if there is to be any chance of success before he leaves the governor’s mansion in January. So far, he has remained silent on the issue.

The Guardian asked Edwards to clarify his position, but did not receive an answer.

Richard Branson, a longtime death penalty abolitionist, wrote to the governor last month. The Virgin Group founder applauded Edwards’ opposition to the practice and expressed strong support for the mass clemency application.

But the petition faces a formidable adversary in Jeff Landry, Louisiana’s Republican attorney general, who is competing to replace Edwards as governor. Landry is a gung-ho supporter of capital punishment who has indicated in his gubernatorial electoral campaign that should he win he is minded to restart executions next year.

Louisiana last executed a prisoner in 2010. Executions have stalled because of the scarcity of lethal injection drugs caused by an international blockade of death penalty states.

Landry says he will bypass the shortage by bringing back the firing squad and electric chair. Advocates fear that should he become governor, he could unleash a wave of judicial killings that would put all 57 death row inmates’ lives in immediate peril.

Landry, who is clear frontrunner to become the Republican candidate in the governor’s race, has used his political muscle to block the mass clemency petition. He issued a four-page opinion last month in which he argued that the pardons board could only consider mercy pleas from death row inmates up to a year after their appeal rulings were issued – effectively negating all 56 applications.

In the wake of Landry’s opinion, the clemency board set aside all the 56 petitions.

Advocacy groups say that Landry’s legal argument is inaccurate and misleading.

“There is clear history that shows that this interpretation is improper and disingenuous – it has never been interpreted this way in the 25 years of this policy, a time period which includes applications for clemency from death row which were permitted under the same conditions,” Kennedy said.

The prospect of Louisiana potentially restarting executions under a Republican governor is chilling to criminal justice advocates, given the state’s dark racial history. Not only does it have the highest incarceration rate over the past decade of any democracy in the world, but it also provides one of the sharpest examples of the slavery-to-capital punishment pipeline.

Angola prison, where Louisiana’s male death row is housed, is located on a former plantation where enslaved people were forced into the fields to pick cotton. The institution is named after the African country where many of those enslaved people originated.

Today, 38 of the 57 people on death row – 67% – are African American in a state in which 33% of the population is Black.

“Death row in Louisiana is rooted in a lynching system,” Kennedy said. “Angola is the size of Manhattan and has been an active plantation since antebellum slavery, where currently Black men are still forced to pick crops under life-threateningly dangerous conditions, under the threat of violence and severe deprivation, replicating slavery.”

She added that it was only until recently that Black men at Angola were forced to do this “under the eyes of a white man on a horse with shotgun in hand”.

Among the 56 mass petitioners, two – David Brown and Tracy Lee – are Black men who were sentenced to death by all-white juries.

Louisiana also has an atrocious record with sentencing innocent people to death. Nine people have been exonerated from death row in the past quarter century, and the reversal rate for cases post-conviction is above 80%.

“That means Louisiana more often than not gets it wrong with the death penalty,” Kennedy said.

Among the 56 mass petitioners are LaDerrick Campbell, who was allowed to dismiss his lawyers and represent himself during his capital murder trial despite having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and showing signs of paranoid delusions in the courtroom.

Another petitioner, Jimmie Duncan, was condemned to death using the thoroughly discredited junk science theory of bite-mark evidence. Antoinette Frank, the only woman on death row in Louisiana, is also among the group.

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