On July 24, 2023, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole set aside all 56 clemency applications filed by nearly every death-sentenced prisoner in Louisiana last month without reviewing the merits of a single one of them. The prisoners asked for their sentences to be commuted to life without parole, but the Board made its decision to return the applications based on an advisory, nonbinding opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. Attorneys for death row prisoners have responded by arguing that the Attorney General’s office misinterpreted the language of the administrative rules and are urging Governor John Bel Edwards to use his own authority to allow the applications to proceed.

The petitions raised claims of intellectual disability, severe mental illness, racial injustice, and prosecutorial misconduct, among many others. In response to the Board’s decision, Cecelia Kappel, the Executive Director of the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project, stated that “[t]he Attorney General has given the Board a wrong reading of its policies in an attempt to steamroll a legitimate request to have these cases heard. These applications are timely and point to grievous errors in Louisiana’s death penalty system that warrant commutation of their death sentences to life without parole. These cases deserve a full and fair review. Stopping the process in its tracks would allow the board’s independence to be compromised by the very prosecutors who have a vested interest in perpetuating this broken system.” 

The wave of clemency applications came after Governor Edwards publicly announced that he opposed the death penalty. Governor Edwards’s term ends in January 2024.  Fifty-one of the applications were filed on June 13th, and the remaining five were filed in the following two weeks. Louisiana has 57 prisoners on death row in total. The Board had initially screened just 13 of the petitions for eligibility when AG Landry’s office issued its advisory opinion. The Louisiana Administrative Code—which is an official compilation of administrative rules published by agencies and boards in the state of Louisiana but does not include laws passed by the legislature— states that capital clemency petitions may be submitted to the Board within a year after the defendant has completed their direct appeal.  But it also contains language assigning the Board broad discretion in choosing which cases to review. AG Landry argued that the one-year language was a requirement which the Board could only waive in emergency situations, such as in a pending death warrant. After the Board declined to consider all the applications, AG Landry praised the decision as a victory for crime victims. 

Lawyers for the defendants and death penalty scholars argue in response that the one-year language is permissive, not restrictive, and does not block the defendant from filing a petition at a later time, nor does it prohibit the Board from hearing a petition filed before a death warrant is issued. They also cite prior examples when the Board heard cases outside of the one-year window when there was no pending death warrant and point to the broad discretion of the Board to decide which cases it takes. A letter signed by more than 250 Louisiana attorneys and legal scholars urges the Board to consider the clemency applications in light of the evidence of the systemic flaws in Louisiana’s death penalty system, such as its high capital reversal rate (more than 80% of Louisiana death sentences have been reversed), its exoneration rate, the number of death row prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability, the racial disparities in Louisiana’s death row population, and its geographical arbitrariness.

Governor Edwards has declined to comment on what, if any, steps he will take in response to the Board’s decision, although advocates have stated that he does have the authority to direct the Board to hear the cases despite AG Landry’s advisory opinion.