Democrat 19th Judicial District Attorney Hillar Moore III did the right thing in pursuing legal action to clarify powers invested in the Louisiana Pardon Board and Committee on Parole, subject to a power play by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards reaching from the political grave.
Earlier this year, Edwards admitted to what had been long suspected that he opposed capital punishment. This sent out a dog whistle to others of that ilk in the legal profession, who then helped line up clemency requests from all but one Louisiana inmate sentenced for execution in order to get an unprecedently-quick resolution hopefully in favor of a positive recommendation, which then would allow Edwards to issue the commutation prior to his leaving office earlier this year.
The Board, comprised of Edwards appointees to the coveted positions that are the only in state government where panel appointees draw a salary (up to $50,000 annually, but at least changes in the last decade now mandate that they have experience in areas related to criminal justice), initially shot down the request after perusing an opinion issued by Republican Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry’s office. Analyzing the Louisiana Administrative Code and the policy statements for the Board drawn from it, plus the relevant Administrative Procedure Act procedures that brought these into force, it concluded that the Board could not bypass the requirement that a year at least had to separate clemency appeals to have a hearing. The one exception would be when an execution is imminent.
This made just about every such inmate ineligible to have these heard, as they routinely request hearings only to have these denied like clockwork. Only by having a hearing scheduled and then winning an affirmative vote can commutation to life imprisonment occur upon assent by the governor.
But another part of those statements says that the governor can force the Board to hold hearings at his request, creating a legal impasse. After Edwards issued just such a request, the Board duly has queued up 20 such hearings over its next four scheduled meetings, Oct. 13, Nov. 7, Nov. 13, and Nov. 27. The Board stated this was the most it could handle given the extraordinary amount of preparation that goes into capital cases that typically takes around a year.
The first takes place one day before the gubernatorial general election, of which Landry, a death penalty supporter, is the front runner. Among the five are some of the most controversial capital cases in Louisiana history. They include Daniel Irish, who killed in cold blood and peripherally involved the son of Bossier City’s then mayor, a bail bondsman, when he fled to his residence before arrest; Winthrop Eaton, who murdered beloved minister Rev. Lea Joyner; and perhaps the most notorious of all, the only woman on death row Antionette Frank, a policewoman who abetted in the murder of another policeman and killed restaurant owners/operators in a robbery and potentially revenge scheme gone bad.
It seems highly doubtful the Board would recommend clemency for any of them, given their histories and heretofore unwillingness for it even to give them hearings. And it seems Edwards won’t be able to apply much pressure to them to bend to his will on this or the next three batches of five, as after the first it likely will have become clear Landry will become the next governor, with after the third the general election runoff will have finished with signs pointing to a Landry victory there. Even if not Landry, it’s almost certain a Republican will win who doesn’t share Edwards’ infatuation with getting rid of the death penalty.
Votes for clemency, which again would demonstrate a remarkable turnaround for a Board that as recently as this year demonstrated it schedules hearings and even approves of commutations from capital to life sentences when warranted and not for political reasons, would happen only if Edwards’ fading political power somehow sways the Board. And any reversal wouldn’t be for merit of the cases, but simply because of an ideology that disbelieves in capital punishment.
Regardless, Moore’s request to have the courts cancel hearings for the three inmates sentenced to death under his jurisdiction (other DAs intend to follow up with inmates under their jurisdictions) is valuable because it would bring clarification to code that, on balance, gives precedence to the year minimum delay, absent an upcoming execution, over a governor’s ability to force a hearing. A successful injunction would bring clarity and a reaffirmation of the rule of law, rather than dispensing with it when it clashes with a preferred ideologically-driven outcome. Let’s hope the Louisiana judiciary confirms that.