The Louisiana state Board of Pardons voted Friday against granting clemency hearings to five Louisiana death row prisoners, ending a monthslong effort to spare the lives of more than 50 people condemned to death.
Over four hours, the four-member panel in Baton Rouge heard impassioned testimony from attorneys, from still-grieving families of murder victims and from friends and relatives of the prisoners themselves. The board ultimately split the vote 2-2 in four cases, leading to denials, with members Tony Marabella and Bonnie Jackson voting in favor of granting clemency hearings and Curtis Fremin and Alvin Roche, Jr. voting against.
The board denied a fifth case — Winthrop Earl Eaton, convicted in the 1985 killing of Monroe pastor Rev. Lea Joyner — in a 3-1 vote, with Marabella the lone member voting to grant the hearing.
Initial plans to hold clemency hearings — and vote on whether to commute the prisoners’ sentences from death to life — at Friday’s meeting were derailed after conservative Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and several parish district attorneys sued the board. Under a settlement agreement, rather than voting on whether to commute, the panel met to consider whether allow them to have their cases heard at a future hearing.
There are currently no plans to consider an additional 51 clemency requests, despite Gov. John Bel Edwards’ support of hearings for all 56 death row prisoners who applied.
Edwards, who, as governor, makes the final decision on recommendations from the board, kicked up a political storm earlier this year when he publicly stated his opposition to the death penalty. Capital defense attorneys responded by seeking to have the sentences of up to 56 death row prisoners commuted to life, while a group of pro-death penalty prosecutors, led by Landry, sought to stymie those efforts.
Landry, the leading candidate in the upcoming election for governor, has expressed his desire to move forward with the executions of those on death row, something that hasn’t happened in Louisiana since 2010 due to a shortage of lethal injection drugs.
In voting to grant the clemency hearings, Jackson and Marabella noted that the applicants met the guideline requirements by having a clean record in prison for at least two years, among other provisions.
Roche and Fremin, in explaining their votes to deny, each noted the heinous nature of the applicants’ crimes. Among the prisoners whose requests were denied Friday was Antoinette Frank, the only woman on death row in Louisiana.
Frank, a New Orleans police officer at the time of her crime, was convicted in 1995 of killing fellow officer Ronald Williams II during an armed robbery of a New Orleans East restaurant where she worked part-time as a security guard. Also killed were two members of the business owners’ family: 17-year-old Cuong Vu and 24-year-old Ha Vu.
The four other applicants were Eaton, Clifford Deruise, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for the killings of 11-month-old Etienne NaChampassak and 20-year-old Gary Booker in New Orleans; Danny Irish, convicted of the 1996 murder of his landlord Russ Rowland in Caddo Parish; and Emmett Taylor, convicted of the 1997 murder of Marie Toscano in Jefferson Parish.
Roche said that should the death row prisoners be granted clemency by the governor and have their sentences reduced to life, they would be able to apply for a reduction in that life sentence in five years, which would eventually make them eligible for parole. And that was something he could not abide by.
“This isn’t about being compassionate,” Roche said in explaining his reason for denying Frank a clemency hearing. “This is about creating an avenue, an interstate for this applicant to be released on parole.”
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From 56 to five
All but one of the 57 people currently on death row applied for clemency hearings last summer.
In August, after Edwards instructed the Board of Pardons to begin hearing the cases, the board scheduled four separate hearings starting Friday to consider 20 applications.
The following month, prosecutors including Landry and East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore sued to prevent any application from moving forward. In his suit, Landry cited a procedural bar that he said prohibits the board from considering applications more than one year after a court had ruled on motions for appeal.
This is where things took a somewhat strange turn. The attorney representing the board asked Landry to recuse himself, stating it was improper for him to sue another state agency. Landry responded by firing that attorney and appointing another of his choosing.
The new attorney for the board then hammered out a settlement with Landry’s office allowing the first of the five scheduled applications to be heard, and no more.
At Friday’s hearing, the family and friends of those on death row stressed that the convicted killers were not the same people they were at the time of their crimes and had dedicated their time in prison to repenting and improving their lives.
They also highlighted the physical, sexual and emotional abuse they suffered as children, in addition to significant mental and intellectual disabilities. A clinical psychologist described the abuse Frank suffered at the hands of her father as “catastrophic,” while Deruise’s attorney said he had an I.Q of 74 due to a number of head injuries he suffered as a child, including a fall off a second-floor balcony in the old St. Thomas Housing Development.
Danna Nachampassak, the mother of slain 11-month-old Etienne, wept throughout much of the proceedings as she held a poster-sized photo of her lost son. When she addressed the board members, she said she felt compassion for Deruise and the life he experienced prior to the moment he killed her child during a carjacking. But she echoed the same sentiments expressed by other family members who represented the victims at Friday’s hearing.
“There’s no second chance for Etienne,” she said. “(Deruise) never once showed mercy or remorse to me.”
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