September 25, 2023

The joint letter to the governor and pardon board details pervasive racial bias in the death penalty

BATON ROUGE — National civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Louisiana, Amnesty International USA, Color of Change, Death Penalty Action, Faith Leaders of Color Coalition, Justice Roundtable, Prison Policy Initiative and Vera Institute for Justice are urging the Louisiana Pardon Board and Gov. John Bel Edwards to set hearings for — and ultimately grant clemency to — 55 people on the state’s death row. A clemency grant would reduce the death sentences to life in prison.

In the letter, which was sent today, the advocates write, “The death penalty stains American democracy and represents the worst excesses of the American legal system. The list of reasons to reject its use is long: it is dehumanizing, contributes to overly harsh sentences throughout the criminal justice system, and importantly, does not make us safer, as the research is clear that the death penalty does not deter violence. We write and urge you to act on these petitions because of the racism endemic in the history and use of the death penalty.”

The letter details pervasive racial bias in Louisiana’s use of the death penalty, notably: 

  • While only one-third of Louisiana residents are Black, two-thirds of capital cases are brought against Black people. 
  • The race of the defendant and the race of the victim have an enormous impact on whether someone is sentenced to death. A person is 48 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is a white woman than a Black man. This is a vestige of slavery and lynching — where Black men were routinely killed for false accusations that they had raped a white woman. 
  • Eight out of the 11 innocent people who have been exonerated from death row have been Black. 

Fifty-six people on Louisiana’s death row filed clemency appeals, raising failures in their cases, including claims of innocence, racial bias, intellectual disability, severe mental illness, and prosecutorial misconduct — and requesting a commutation of their sentence from death to life in prison. The Pardon Board must recommend commutation, and the governor must accept the recommendation.

The following quotes can be attributed as noted:

Cassandra Stubbs, director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project:
“The historic mass clemency petition highlights the systemic failures inherent in the death penalty: it is racist, it cannot protect the innocent, and it is applied against our most vulnerable neighbors, including people with intellectual disabilities, people with significant mental illness, and people who were themselves the victims of terrible physical and sexual abuse.

“Until the death penalty is abolished, clemency is a powerful tool to correct injustice. We urge the Pardon Board and Gov. John Bel Edwards to choose mercy over retribution, hope over despair and reconciliation over vengeance.”

Alanah Odoms, executive director, ACLU of Louisiana:
“In Louisiana, the death penalty is rife with errors, racial bias, and official misconduct. The Louisiana Pardon Board and Gov. John Bel Edwards have the opportunity to lead with compassion, mercy, and justice.

“If we are to move into a brighter, better future together, Louisiana must put this fundamentally cruel punishment, which brings neither safety nor justice for anyone, behind us.”