By Yenah Lee
NEW ORLEANS, LA – Fifty-six people on Louisiana’s death row have filed clemency petitions to modify their death sentences to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and those petitions will be reviewed starting Oct. 13.
According to the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project, the five cases scheduled for hearing by the Louisiana Pardons Board involve issues of “innocence, intellectual disability, serious mental illness, childhood sexual abuse and trauma, racial bias, youth, prosecutorial misconduct, sentencing disparities, and ineffective defense representation.”
Clifford Deruise is a young Black man with intellectual disability on death row, while Winthrop Earl Eaton was declared mentally incompetent 30 years ago, but he is still on Louisiana’s death row. Additionally, the victim’s successor supports his clemency.
Antoinette Frank was an accomplice, yet she is being charged with the death penalty while the mastermind behind the crime is only serving life. Additionally, her jury never heard about her traumatic history of sexual and physical abuse from her father.
Danny Irish was only 18 years old and severely mentally impaired and traumatized when he was sentenced to death.
Emmett Taylor is a young Black man who was sentenced with the death penalty despite proof of his intellectual disability, brain damage, and mental illness. The project said the only pieces of evidence used against him were his confession—which was a result of long interrogation—and an unreliable eyewitness identification, noting new evidence that was recently discovered supports Taylor’s innocence.
Additional clemency petitions are scheduled to be heard throughout November.
While only five case summaries are listed above where the Louisiana death penalty system failed them, there are still striking statistics that reveal disparities in the system, maintains the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project.
Out of the 56 men and one woman on Louisiana’s death row, 42 individuals (74 percent) are people of color, and 23 individuals (40 percent) are noted to have an intellectual disability, which should disqualify them from being charged with the death penalty per U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the project said.
“Race correlates strongly with other serious problems in Louisiana’s death penalty system, including wrongful conviction, intellectual disability, youth, and geographic disparity,” argues the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project.
Additional statistics of Louisiana’s death penalty include racial disparities, sentencing individuals 25 years old and younger, claims of an unfair trial and investigation, and number of death sentences in two parishes in Louisiana.
Out of the 42 people of color, 38 people (68 percent) are Black. Yet, only 33 percent of Louisiana’s population is Black, according to the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project.
And, 36 individuals of the 57 death row prisoners (63 percent) were convicted of killing a white individual, while only two white individuals are under a death sentence in Louisiana for killing a Black individual. However, it is important to recognize that no white person has ever been sentenced to the death penalty for killing a Black person in Louisiana.
Twenty-seven total prisoners were 25 years or younger when they committed their crime, and 13 of them were 21 years or younger.
These sentences violate the Supreme Court’s acknowledgement of late-adolescent brain development, which was explained in the National Conference of State Legislatures’ latest update on April 7 on youth justice and brain development ongoing until one reaches 25 years of age, said the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project.
And, 22 of the 27 young prisoners are Black, one is Hispanic, and four are white. It is also critical information that 14 young prisoners documented having an intellectual disability. Out of the 14, 13 were Black.
Intellectual disabilities are also prevalent in the majority of Louisiana death row prisoners. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court enforcing the Eighth Amendment to restrict executing individuals with an intellectual disability, 23 of Louisiana’s death row inmates (40 percent) are documented to have an intellectual disability, 19 of the 23 prisoners are Black, while four are white, statistics provided by the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project noted.
The restriction on sentencing intellectually disabled individuals with the death penalty is due to the court’s recognition of those individuals lacking the moral responsibility required for capital punishment and their vulnerability of possibly being manipulated by other accomplices or pressured into falsely confessing to the crime, the group said.
Moreover, 39 inmates were diagnosed with a serious mental illness or brain damage. A similar number of individuals have also experienced various forms of abuse and trauma in their childhood. Although these individuals are documented to have such mental struggles, many have not received exhaustive evaluations and care, noted the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project.
The project said the death penalty sentencing in Louisiana is extremely concentrated in Caddo and East Baton Rouge—two parishes that account for 42 percent of the entire state’s current death penalties.
The project’s information charges seven of Louisiana’s 64 parishes hold responsibility for 70 percent of the entire state’s current death penalties. These parishes include Caddo, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Ouachita, Calcasieu, Orleans and Rapides.
With the last one dated back in the early 2010s, neither East Baton Rouge nor Caddo Parish have sentenced an individual with the death penalty. This signifies the outdated nature of the death sentence, said the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project.
Yet, the high-use parishes have still imposed a high number of death sentences on Black individuals, the project added, noting 31 out of the 38 Black individuals on Louisiana’s death row were prosecuted by one of the seven high-use parishes.
Importantly, Louisiana has a history of reversing cases, argued the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project, indicating an 83 percent reversal rate in capital cases since 1976, and adding in 1999, Louisiana death row prisoners gained the right to have post-conviction proceedings, where nine individuals were exonerated due to wrongful capital convictions and death sentences. Today, a number of inmates on death row claim innocence.
“The racial disparity in Louisiana’s death penalty is reflected in its wrongful capital convictions,” asserted the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project, noting, the six out of the nine individuals who were exonerated were also Black, while three were white. Seven of the total individuals were falsely convicted of killing white victims.
Associated with the claims of innocence from current death row inmates, many are noted by the project to have prosecutors who withheld favorable evidence, relied on flawed or misleading evidence, or quoted false testimonies from victims and witnesses—these statistics reveal the stark injustices present in Louisiana’s death penalty system.