A group gathers on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol on Aug. 15, 2023, calling for clemency for the state’s death row inmates. (Claire Sullivan/Louisiana Illuminator)
A federal judge ruled late Thursday against 55 Louisiana inmates facing execution who are pursuing clemency, a process Gov. John Bel Edwards has urged the state pardon board to expedite.
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of Louisiana’s Middle District denied a request from plaintiffs on death row to issue a preliminary injunction against an opinion from Attorney General Jeff Landry. He and district attorneys argue the Louisiana Board of Pardons’ procedures don’t allow for clemency consideration in such capital cases.
“Plaintiffs have presented no evidence that they have been denied access to Louisiana’s clemency process,” Dick wrote in her ruling.
The decision from Dick, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, all but shuts a door Edwards opened to give condemned prisoners a path to have their death sentences changed to life terms. Landry will take over as governor Jan. 8, before any pardon board hearings could likely be convened for the clemency appeals.
Earlier this year, Edwards publicly declared his opposition to the death penalty and called on the pardon board to schedule clemency hearings for the death row inmates. The governor has the power to change death sentences to life in prison but only if the pardon board recommends it.
Before any clemency hearings could take place, Landry replaced the board’s attorneys with an outside firm. Board members, who the governor appoints, then decided to replace the clemency hearings with administrative hearings to rule on whether defendants were eligible for a full review. The first 10 of those administrative hearings have taken place, and the board ruled against clemency in each case.
Cecelia Kappel, executive director of the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project, said in a statement Dick’s ruling amounts to a rejection of the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to due process.
“Judge Dick’s ruling … abstains from reaching the critical issue here: that AG Landry improperly interfered with the clemency process,” Kappel said. “This is a loss not only for the people on death row and their families, but for the citizens of Louisiana who value life and want an honest evaluation of how this state has imposed death sentences in the past. There is still time for action, but time is running short.”
Kappel noted the state’s history of capital convictions involving racial bias, defendants with mental disabilities and prosecutorial misconduct. She also pointed out 42% of current death sentences were issued in just two parishes — Caddo and East Baton Rouge.
In the past 24 years, nine individuals facing execution in Louisiana were exonerated.
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