La.'s death row clemency requests postponed after prosecutors step in, saying process rushed
Nearly all of Louisiana’s death row inmates asked the governor to grant them clemency on the same day back in June
By James Finn
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s pardon board on Monday postponed hearing dozens of clemency applications from death row inmates after prosecutors showed up at a meeting to oppose the process, arguing defense lawyers were rushing the requests at the expense of relatives of the victims.
As the Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole convened to discuss clemency petitions submitted last month on behalf of 56 Louisiana death row prisoners, two district attorneys, a lawyer from Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office and the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association director arrived to voice their displeasure with the requests.
“We should not move forward with these in such a hasty fashion,” Loren Lampert, the District Attorneys’ Association director, said after the meeting.
The hearing in Baton Rouge marked the latest confrontation in a debate over the applications, which ask the pardon board and Gov. John Bel Edwards to commute the sentences of all but one Louisiana death row prisoner — and over the future of capital punishment in Louisiana. The applications aim to seize on what some see as a limited political window before the term-limited Democrat leaves office early next year.
The District Attorneys’ Association and Landry’s office in recent weeks have repeatedly criticized the way the requests were filed.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore earlier this month called the process “accelerated” and said his office needs more information and time to prepare for opposition hearings. In an advisory opinion issued last week, Landry — a Republican who supports executions and is running for governor — wrote that the pardons and parole panel can’t waive a procedural hurdle to consider the requests after certain time requirements have elapsed.
The pardons board met Monday to “consider applications for clemency and administrative review of clemency applications,” according to an agenda.
The panel moved during the hearing to table the applications. The effects of that action were not immediately clear Monday — though they did appear to entail at least a temporary victory for Moore, who said his office had been preparing arguments for a clemency hearing slated for Friday in the case of death row defendant David Bowie.
That hearing has now been canceled, Moore said in an interview Monday. He was joined at Monday’s pardon board meeting by 42nd Judicial District Attorney Charles Adams, as well as Lampert and a lawyer from Landry’s office.
In a statement, Board of Pardons and Parole director Francis Abbott said the board was only temporarily pausing its consideration of the clemency applications to study how the panel’s procedures should be applied to the requests, which are unprecedented in their quantity.
“These have been the most scrutinized applications our office has ever processed,” Abbott said. “We have engaged our stakeholder(s) at every step thus far and will continue to communicate with all concerned parties.”
The sweeping request commenced last month when 51 people on death row filed applications with the Board of Pardons en masse. Attorneys filed five more clemency applications in subsequent weeks, bringing the total to 56 of the 57 prisoners on Louisiana’s death row. The documents do not seek to free the prisoners, but ask Edwards to soften their sentences to life-in-prison — the only commutation available to people sentenced to die.
The historic request came after Edwards broke his silence on how he views capital punishment and pushed lawmakers to outlaw the practice through the legislative process.
The Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole had asked Landry’s office whether it can take up clemency requests filed more than a year after a judge has issued an appeal ruling in capital cases. Landry replied last week that the board can’t use an exemption included in its policies to ignore that rule.
Almost all of the 56 prisoners’ recent requests were filed more than a year after judges issued appeal rulings in their cases, according to Cecelia Kappel, executive director of the Capital Appeals Project, which led a group of attorneys who represent death row prisoners in filing the batch of requests.
Over the years, Kappel noted in a letter to the pardons and parole board, the panel has ignored the one-year limit multiple times when weighing clemency requests from death row prisoners.
Kappel also accused Landry’s advisory opinion of being tainted because his office is prosecuting some of the same death row cases at issue in the clemency pleas.
“The Attorney General has a clear conflict of interest in these cases,” she said in an interview Monday. “He is directly prosecuting several of the individuals who have applied for capital clemency here, and he has stated publicly that he opposes all of the applications.”
Attorney generals’ opinions are not legally binding but can be influential nonetheless. They may be requested by government offices, law enforcement agencies and other public officials as they seek legal advice.
In a statement, a Landry spokesperson said the opinion delivered to the pardon board is consistent with the office’s practice of delivering those documents to other government agencies. The opinion, which Landry signed, was drafted by the civil division of the Attorney General’s Office, the spokesperson said, which is not involved in prosecuting crimes.
“Our criminal division was not involved in the opinion,” said Landry spokesperson Millard Mule.
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