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Louisiana denies clemency hearings to five death row prisoners

The Louisiana state board of pardons has voted against granting clemency hearings to five Louisiana death row prisoners, effectively ending a campaign to hold hearings for 55 death row inmates before the state’s anti-death penalty governor, John Bel Edwards, steps down in January.

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On Friday, the four-member panel sitting in Baton Rouge denied the hearings to four people on a split vote, and by a majority to a fifth, Winthrop Earl Eaton, who was convicted in the 1985 killing of a Louisiana pastor, on the grounds that he is unlikely to be executed because he is mentally incompetent.

Among the prisoners whose requests were denied on Friday was Antoinette Frank, the only woman on Louisiana’s death row. Frank, a former New Orleans police officer, was convicted in 1995 of killing another officer during an armed robbery of a restaurant where she worked part-time as a security guard.

Also denied were Clifford Deruise, sentenced to death in 1996 for the killings of 11-month-old Etienne NaChampassak and 20-year-old Gary Booker; Danny Irish, convicted in the 1996 murder of his landlord; and Emmett Taylor, convicted of the 1997 murder of Marie Toscano.

Panel member Alvin Roche later said that his opposition to Frank’s request for her sentence to be dropped from death to a life sentence was that it could ultimately make her eligible for parole. “This isn’t about being compassionate,” Roche reasoned after denying Frank a clemency hearing, reported the Louisiana Illuminator. “This is about creating an avenue, an interstate for this applicant to be released on parole.”

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Requests for clemency hearings have pitted Governor Edwards and anti-death penalty campaigners, including Sister Helen Prejean, against the conservative Louisiana attorney general, Jeff Landry, who is seeking to become governor of the state and has expressed his desire to move forward with the executions.

In a complex settlement agreement, the panel had met to consider whether to allow death row inmates to have their cases heard before January, not to vote on commuting their sentences to life imprisonment. The remaining requests are unlikely to be heard before the term-limited Democrat governor leaves office.

“What happened today epitomizes the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in Louisiana. The Board summarily denied even a hearing to these individuals on death row, by a divided vote, without letting them speak, or even looking them in the face,” said Cecelia Kappel, executive director of the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project, in a statement.

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Kappel called on Edwards to clarify a letter he sent over the summer that publicly stated his opposition to the death penalty and called for full clemency hearings to be held. The governor, she said, “must step up to clarify that he intends for the Board to hold substantive clemency hearings for all of the death row applicants before he leaves office”.

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According to the activist group, there are 56 men and one woman on Louisiana’s death row, with nearly three-quarters being people of color, and 40% deemed intellectually disabled.

Louisiana’s death row population, the group added, reflects “racial bias, geographic concentration, prosecutorial overreach, and other serious flaws” in the application of capital punishment. Among instances of judicial imbalance, it says, 63% of Louisiana’s death row prisoners were convicted of killing a white person; only two white people are under a death sentence in Louisiana for killing a Black person.