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Nun accuses Louisiana of blocking death row clemency appeals in lawsuit

Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and anti-death penalty advocate, is accusing Louisiana’s board of pardons of breaking the state’s public meetings law to effectively delay clemency petitions for death row inmates.

The action pits the 84-year-old sister, who came to prominence as the author of the book behind the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, against Louisiana’s far-right attorney general, Jeff Landry. Landry is part of a legal effort seeking to block the pardon board from hearing mass clemency petitions.

In a victory last month at the Louisiana supreme court, Landry successfully defended the governor’s right to grant clemency at the recommendation of the pardon board, a body the governor appoints. But then Landry moved to block the governor’s powers to expedite petitions by 55 of the state’s 56 condemned prisoners.

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Landry himself is running for governor in Louisiana’s gubernatorial primary Saturday. He is seeking to succeed the state’s centrist Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, who was barred from running for re-election because of term limits.

In June, the capital inmates on Louisiana’s death row filed applications for clemency seeking to have their death sentences commuted to sentences of life in prison before Edwards, whose second term in office expires in January, steps down.

But Landry, who seeks to replace Edwards and has argued for reintroducing the electric chair, hangings and firing squads, opposes the clemency hearings and faces accusations of trying to gut the operations of the pardon board.

Those accusations follow Landry’s decision to remove an independent counsel representing the state’s pardon board. As a replacement, Landry appointed a firm his office previously hired to defend the implementation of the state’s abortion laws.

Now Prejean, 84, who has long campaigned on behalf of the state’s death row prisoners, has joined the latest round of legal maneuvers with her own lawsuit that accuses the board of violating state law by holding a hearing without public consultations.

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A settlement reached by the board of pardons and Landry, it claims, only called for “administrative” hearings on the clemency hearings on 13 October. Prejean’s petition seeks to void the settlement that the board of pardons reached with Landry.

The lawsuit also claims that the board ignored Edwards’s directive to conduct hearings on the capital clemency applications and argues that the five-member pardon board had no discretion to deny the hearings.

But Landry rejected Edwards’s call to the board of pardons to “set these cases for hearing in a manner least disruptive to the noncapital cases currently pending before the board” as an effort “to circumvent the established legal process”.

Prejean said in a statement that what the death row prisoners and their advocates want is for the governor “to step in and reiterate his directive”.

A prayer vigil is scheduled for Tuesday outside the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge at which Prejean and local bishop Michal Duca are expected to urge Edwards to force the board to hear the applications before he leaves office.

Prejean warned last week: “We have a rabidly rightwing attorney general, Jeff Landry, who wants to become governor, who if he wins will use his power to line people up and execute them.”

Support for the expeditated applications has also come from the Vatican. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s pontifical academy of life, said: “The clearing of Louisiana’s death row would be a monumental step towards the abolition of the death penalty.”

Adding to the political intrigue of Prejean’s lawsuit is her selection of attorney: Soren Gisleson, who represents numerous victims of a clerical molestation scandal that has roiled the archdiocese of nearby New Orleans for decades.

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Gisleson said in a statement on Monday that Prejean’s move was prompted by Landry’s maneuvering.

“Regardless of how someone feels about the death penalty, Landry’s willingness to manipulate the system, ignore clear law, and install shill lawyers for an expedient political issue to assist in his election should give each of us pause,” Gisleson said. “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.”

Edwards’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Landry has not commented on his changing the board’s counsel.

Prejean remains one of Louisiana’s most prominent death penalty abolitionists.

Over four decades of outspoken criticism of the practice, Prejean has been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement – a calling that has included walking six men to the death chamber as their spiritual adviser.

Louisiana has executed 28 people since 1976, when the US supreme court reinstated the death penalty.

Prejean currently serves as spiritual adviser to Manuel Ortiz, an El Salvador native convicted in the 1992 murder-for-hire killing of his wife, Tracie Williams Ortiz, and another woman.

Ortiz is among Louisiana’s 55 death row inmates requesting clemency.

In an interview with New Orleans’s Times-Picayune in June, Prejean said that granting clemency to death row inmates is “what we have to do”, adding that she believed in Ortiz’s innocence.

“He’s the seventh person I’ve taken on death row, and he’s the third innocent one,” she said. “That’s how broken this thing is.

“Dignity is not just for people who are innocent,” she added. “And to strap a person down – to render them completely defenseless – and kill them, what kind of dignity is in that?”