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Nearly every prisoner on Louisiana's death row filed for clemency this summer

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards recently spoke out against the death penalty, saying it conflicts with "pro-life" views. Now dozens of inmates are asking him to commute their death sentences to life in prison before he leaves office.
Kevin Dietsch
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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards recently spoke out against the death penalty, saying it conflicts with "pro-life" views. Now dozens of inmates are asking him to commute their death sentences to life in prison before he leaves office.

Nearly every prisoner on Louisiana's death row is asking Gov. John Bel Edwards to spare them from execution, after the governor recently said he is against the death penalty. But the state's attorney general and others say the inmates aren't eligible to be considered for clemency.

Only one death row resident is not part of the push to commute their sentences, with 56 prisoners hoping Edwards will grant their requests. But they have a limited timeframe in which to operate: The governor is in the final months of his term in office.

Local news outlets call the coordinated filings for clemency "historic." But the Louisiana pardons board recently turned the petitions away without conducting hearings on their merits, saying the majority of the inmates had missed a deadline.

The pardons board says it's just following the rules. But the inmates' attorneys say it's not so simple.

"They've never turned away somebody on death row from trying to get commutation," Capital Appeals Project Director Cecelia Kappel, whose group is leading the clemency effort, told NPR.

"They've denied plenty of people on the merits, but they've never said, 'Oh, you're too late,' " Kappel added. "It's really unprecedented."

There's also a complicated political aspect: the pardons board is appointed by the Democratic governor, but it's represented in legal matters by the Republican attorney general.

Here's a quick guide to what's happening:

Prisoners are rushing to get commutations

Edwards, a Democrat, called on the state Legislature to abolish the death penalty in April, when he delivered his final State of the State address.

A month after the governor spoke, HB 228, a piece of legislation that would eliminate the death penalty, failed to advance out of a state House committee.

A group of defense attorneys then filed petitions in June seeking dozens of commutations, hoping to get the governor's approval before he leaves office after two terms, as required by state law. Voters will select a new governor this fall — and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry wants the job, raising the political stakes even further.

What did the attorney general say?

Faced with a flurry of requests for commutations, the Louisiana Board Of Pardons asked Landry for guidance.

The attorney general issued an opinion citing procedural rules that require inmates to file any clemency petitions within a year of a judge ruling on an appeal in their case. The inmates' petitions don't clear that procedural hurdle, Landry said.

Landry also noted that none of the condemned prisoners are facing an execution date — meaning, he said, they don't qualify for an exception which could be made under emergent circumstances.

The pardons board then "returned" the petitions rather than consider the merits of the inmates' cases, with Francis Abbott, executive director of the Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, citing Landry's opinion.

The attorney general's office did not reply to NPR's requests for additional comment before this story published.

What did the board of pardons do?

"All 56 applications were thoroughly reviewed by staff and it was determined that none of these individuals were eligible for consideration," Abbott told NPR.

Of the petitions, Abbott said, 43 were returned because of board policy — a reference to the one-year deadline. Another 11 were returned because of other eligibility issues, such as having committed disciplinary infractions within the past 24 months.

Another two inmates had not served the required minimum of 15 years, Abbott said.

Inmates' attorneys want the governor to act

"It's our position that Attorney General Landry's reading of the rule is disingenuous," Kappel said. "He's conflicted because he is prosecuting some of our clients."

The inmates' attorneys say the pardons board has previously heard petitions that didn't meet the one-year deadline. They also say Landry's opinion isn't legally binding — and they want Edwards to order the board to hear the inmates' petitions, so they can be reviewed.

The governor could simply place a case on the board's docket, Kappel said.

"He's not going to tell them to grant or deny it," she said. "All he's saying is, you need to hear the merits of this case. And if they recommend a grant, then it comes to his desk. If they don't, then he never sees it."

The inmates' petitions cite a number of factors for a review of their sentences, from racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct to intellectual disability, youth, mental ability, and other factors.

"What we've found in Louisiana is that 80% of the time we convicted somebody and sentenced him to death, we were wrong," veteran criminal defense attorney Jim Boren told Baton Rouge Public Radio.

Some of those people were exonerated, Boren said, while in other cases, courts reversed their verdicts "because the trial was unfair, often because it was racist, and because the way the jury was selected was improper."

What did the governor say about the death penalty?

Edwards said it sucks up a huge amount of money, with tens of millions of dollars spent to prosecute and defend capital cases, and millions more spent to maintain death row. The state has gone to great lengths and expense, he said, to perform just one execution in the past 20 years.

Edwards also spoke about human fallibility — a problem in Louisiana and elsewhere — when it comes to deciding life-or-death issues. In the past 20 years, he said, "there have been six exonerations from death row and more than 50 reversals of sentences and/or convictions."

Within the justice system, the governor added, the death penalty is neither necessary nor successful at deterring criminals. Edwards, who is a Catholic, called on politicians who are "pro-life" when it comes to abortion to be "pro-life" when it comes to capital punishment.

What's next?

Asked about the situation on Thursday, Edwards said, "Something has to happen soon, if anything's going to happen at all," according to journalist Tyler Bridges.

The governor's office declined to comment further to NPR.

The Louisiana Board of Pardons' next meeting is slated for Aug. 14, and it could be a crowded affair. Representatives of both the attorney general's office and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association attended the last meeting in late July, when it said it would return the inmates' petitions. Kappel confirmed that her group will also be at the Aug. 14 session.

Mass commutations have happened before

There is recent historic precedent for an outgoing governor to issue blanket commutations to let prisoners avoid the death penalty. For instance, when Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan was leaving office 20 years ago, he commuted the death sentences of more than 160 death-row prisoners.

One day earlier, Ryan granted full pardons to four inmates on death row, saying they had confessed to serious crimes under police torture.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.