Voters in Louisiana elected a new governor last week. For 56 of the state’s residents, the stakes of that contest were especially high: The elevation of Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a rabid defender of the death penalty, dramatically increases the odds they will soon be executed.
Earlier this year, the dozens of inmates on Louisiana’s death row had a glimmer of hope: In April, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, used his last state of the state address to call on the legislature to abolish executions. He declared them exorbitantly expensive, difficult to administer, and often wrong, pointing to more than 50 reversals of sentences and six full exonerations of death row inmates in the last 20 years.
The death penalty, Edwards said, “doesn’t deter crime; it isn’t necessary for public safety; and more importantly, it is wholly inconsistent with Louisiana’s pro-life values as it quite literally promotes a culture of death.”
All but one of Louisiana’s 57 death row inmates petitioned the governor for clemency following his remarks. But, in Louisiana, the governor does not have sole authority to commute death sentences; granting clemency requires the approval of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole. In July, the board, acting on advice from Attorney General Landry, denied all 56 petitions outright and en masse.
“Look, this is ridiculous,” Landry told a radio host in June. “We haven’t executed anyone since 2010. All of the states around us are holding executions, and doing a lot better in the crime metrics than Louisiana.” (This is not exactly true: Texas is the only one of Louisiana’s direct neighbors to have held executions in 2023, and it had the second highest number of murders in the country in 2022, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.)
Landry went on to say the state made a “promise” to execute those prisoners, and it would be wrong to go back on a promise: “Every time we don’t uphold our end of the contract or our promises, it’s a further eroding of trust between our citizens and the government.”
At Edwards’ urging, the board later agreed to hold clemency hearings on each of the 56 petitions. But in September, several Louisiana district attorneys and Landry sued the board to block them. Instead of full hearings on the merits of their claims, the board has given a handful of the prisoners an administrative review, an abbreviated process in which the prisoner does not participate.
“After Jeff Landry improperly interfered, they converted the hearings on the merits to ‘administrative reviews’ that looked exactly like a hearing on the merits except the applicant himself was not allowed to be there,” says Cecelia Trenticosta Kappel, executive director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans. “It’s been described as a ‘Franken-process.’ It’s never been used before. And we found out very quickly that it was a sham.”
Only 11 of 56 prisoners have had reviews; all 11 requests were denied. Two others are scheduled before Edwards leaves office and Landry takes over in January.
“In filing these petitions and looking into these cases, it became clear to us that out of the 57 people on death row, each one of these guys and and one woman have extremely strong claims, ranging from intellectual disability, serious mental illness, childhood trauma, innocence, racism — every single one of them,” Trenticosta Kappel says. “And the fact that the DAs and the AG fought so hard to prevent these cases from being heard just shows that they are afraid of the broken nature of the death penalty in Louisiana being exposed in front of the national audience.”
Landry’s campaign office did not respond to requests for comment.
The clemency push is not the first time that Edwards and his successor tangled over the death penalty.
Five years ago, Landry sent a letter to the governor urging him to explore other options after a critical component of the drug cocktail used in lethal injections became unavailable. Among other ideas, Landry floated the possibility that the state manufacture the drug pentobarbital itself in the pharmacy at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
“You make the unremarkable observation that other methods of execution ‘are not allowed by Louisiana law,’” Landry wrote. “While this is true, you avoid the simple truth that the law can be changed.” He went on to suggest language that could be added to the state law governing executions, including a line allowing the use of nitrogen hypoxia, or the gas chamber. If neither that nor lethal injection were available, Landry’s proposed law states: “then the method shall be by hanging, firing squad, or electrocution.”
Landry’s enthusiastic embrace of the death penalty has not just put him at odds with Edwards — it has put him at odds with his own church. “I’m a practicing Catholic, and for more than two thousand years, the Catholic Church’s teachings have supported the death penalty. But these days, some in the church have made ending the death penalty a top priority,” Landry said at a hearing in 2019. “Those bishops cherry-picked: by solely focusing on the mercy of God, they have glossed over the fact that God is also a just God.”
Landry will be sworn in as Louisiana’s governor on January 8, 2024.
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