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Condemned Louisiana Prisoners Lose Bid for Clemency Hearings

The last five of a group consisting of condemned Louisiana prisoners who had sought clemency hearings were shot down by the state Board of Pardons on October 13, 2023. Among them was Antoinette Frank, a former New Orleans cop and the only woman on the state’s death row, who was convicted in 1995 of three murders during a robbery at a restaurant where she worked as a part-time security guard.

A settlement reached on September 29, 2023, between the Board and East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore had earlier cleared the Board’s calendar of 20 clemency hearings for death row prisoners, which Moore had sued to stop, along with state Attorney General Jeff Landry (R).

The back-and-forth traces to March 2023, when Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) announced his opposition to the death penalty and asked the Board to consider granting clemency to the 57 prisoners awaiting execution in the state. Of those condemned prisoners, 51 filed clemency requests on June 13, 2023, followed by another five a few days later. Board members—who must recommend clemency before the governor can grant it—ultimately agreed to hear 20 of the petitions, saying that was the most they could take on. The hearings were scheduled between October 13 and November 27, 2023.

At once, Moore and several other prosecutors cried foul. “Any time the public we serve perceives a thumb on the scales of justice at any level it erodes their confidence in what we do,” declared the state District Attorneys Association, adding in a swipe at the governor: “Irrespective of your opinion of the death penalty, 11th hour mass expedited clemency hearings are not the proper venue to have the debate.”

Gov. Edwards noted that any prisoners whose sentences were commuted would not be eligible for release. But in July 2023, Landry—then a candidate for the upcoming race to replace the term-limited governor—released an advisory opinion saying the Board couldn’t hear the clemency requests because La. Admin. Code tit. 22 § V-203 bars applications filed more than a year after the last ruling on a prisoner’s appeal. Though an exception is allowed when an execution date nears, none of the prisoners is scheduled to die, Landry noted.

“The broad and ill-defined waiver [of rules] ostensibly empowers the board to repeal portions of its own rules and enact new ones at will, on an ad-hoc basis, and without any notice to the public,” he wrote. “Such a result is impermissible under Louisiana law.”

Not so, countered Capital Appeals Project Executive Director Cecelia Kappel, noting the Board has “never rejected a capital applicant on timeliness grounds.” She called Landry’s move “a baseless attempt to prevent the board from considering the prisoners’ claims,” which reflect “problems exemplifying Louisiana’s broken death penalty system.”

Gov. Edwards also pushed back against Landry’s ruling, noting that the Attorney General’s position would have led to a miscarriage of justice for the six condemned state prisoners who have been exonerated and another 50 whose convictions were reversed. After Board members initially rejected all 56 applicants, the governor successfully prevailed upon them to reconsider, leading to hearing dates for 20 of the condemned men.

Landry then backed the suit Moore filed on September 12, 2023, asking the state’s 19th Judicial District Court for an injunction to prohibit the state Board from granting hearings for the 20 clemency applications he called “untimely and improperly submitted.” But Art Smith, the attorney hired to represent the Board, shot back that Landry was pursuing the suit to boost his bid for the governorship and demanded he recuse himself from the litigation.

Landry then fired Smith, replacing him with a law firm used to defend the state’s near-total ban on abortion. After that, the settlement was quickly reached. Under its terms, none of the death row prisoners was currently eligible for a clemency hearing, though five still had a chance if the Board could meet and agree to hear their petitions. See: Moore v. La. Bd. of Pardons, La. 19th Jud. Dist. (Parish of Baton Rouge), Case No. C-738241 25.

In a surprise legal maneuver in the unfolding drama on October 9, 2023, native Louisianan and leading death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean filed a petition to void the settlement, arguing it was privately negotiated in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law. She was joined by fellow death penalty opponent Brett Malone, whose mother was murdered by one of the condemned prisoners.

Like the Attorney General, Prejean also made a pointed choice of attorneys: Soren Gisleson, who represents numerous victims of alleged clergy abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. He called out “Landry’s willingness to manipulate the system, ignore clear law, and install shill lawyers for an expedient political issue to assist in his election.”

“If he will do this with one of the weightiest social issues, he will come for anyone, for any contrived reason, if he perceives a political point to be made,” Gisleson said.

That petition is still pending. Meanwhile, the Board met on October 13, 2023, and denied clemency hearings to the last five condemned prisoners—handing Landry a win on his way to becoming governor elect the next day, when he won 52% of the primary vote. After assuming office in January 2024, he has vowed to resume executions, of which the state has conducted just two this century, the last in 2010. Of course, the state continues to pay related legal fees—to lawyers that Landry’s office hires—that totaled $7.7 million in 2022 alone.   

Sources: The Advocate, AP News, BR Proud, The Guardian, Louisiana Illuminator, Times-Picayune, WAFB, WWL

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Related legal case

Moore v. La. Bd. of Pardons