On January 26, 2024, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted a new trial to death-sentenced prisoner Darrell Robinson based on egregious prosecutorial misconduct. The Court held that Mr. Robinson “did not receive a fair trial, or a verdict worthy of confidence.” Mr. Robinson’s quest to prove his innocence advances at the same time that Governor Jeff Landry seeks to expand the state’s methods of execution and restart executions. During a tumultuous 2023 in which outgoing Governor John Bel Edwards supported clemency review for Louisiana’s entire death row, only to be blocked by then-Attorney General Landry and the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, Mr. Robinson was the only one of 57 death-sentenced prisoners not to file for clemency. Mr. Robinson is now the only one to receive relief from his sentence.

Mr. Robinson was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 shooting murders of Billy Lambert and three of his family members. Mr. Robinson had been staying with Mr. Lambert after both men were released from a Veterans Affairs alcoholism treatment program, but Mr. Lambert had told relatives that he planned to kick Mr. Robinson out for drinking again. Mr. Robinson’s conviction hinged on circumstantial evidence showing that he fled in Mr. Lambert’s truck and his shoe had blood from one of the victims, but Mr. Robinson said that he had discovered the scene of the crime and run away in fear. Prosecution witness Leroy Goodspeed, who had shared a cell with Mr. Robinson, testified that Mr. Robinson had confessed to the murders. Mr. Goodspeed “was not offered anything,” the prosecutor told the jury at trial. “He did not ask for anything.”  

However, this was a lie: courts dropped unrelated charges against Mr. Goodspeed in the lead-up to the trial, and he was pardoned for offenses that would have resulted in mandatory life without parole under Louisiana’s habitual offender law. Records that the prosecution hid from the defense confirmed that this leniency resulted from Mr. Goodspeed’s testimony against Mr. Robinson. The prosecution also suppressed forensic evidence identifying blood at the scene that did not match Mr. Robinson or the victims, ballistics notes and diagrams that could have drawn the state’s narrative into question, and eyewitness accounts that indicated another car left the scene and Mr. Robinson arrived after the timeframe of the murders. Recent DNA testing identified the blood at the scene as belonging to Mark Moras, another man who had previously stayed with the Lambert family and was caught forging Mr. Lambert’s checks.   

The Louisiana Supreme Court held that the lower court had erred in denying relief to Mr. Robinson by failing to consider the cumulative effect of the evidence withheld. The Court wrote that because the case against Mr. Robinson was “based largely on circumstantial evidence,” the only evidence that truly implicated Mr. Robinson as the perpetrator was Mr. Goodspeed’s testimony. The suppression of evidence of favors for Mr. Goodspeed, forensic testing pointing to another suspect, crime scene documentation contradicting the state’s ballistics theory, and witness statements contradicting the state’s timeline together jeopardized Mr. Robinson’s rights. “Considered separately, each item undermines the strength of the State’s case,” the Court wrote. “Considered cumulatively they convince us that we can have no confidence that the jury’s verdict would not have been affected had the suppressed evidence come to light.”  

According to DPIC’s Prosecutorial Accountability research, this is the 27th death sentence reversal for prosecutorial misconduct in Louisiana. In other cases, Louisiana prosecutors have broken the rules by withholding critical evidence from the defense, striking Black jurors based on race, and making inflammatory arguments to the jury. Studies have found that prosecutorial misconduct is underreported and underenforced. Additionally, Louisiana is currently tied with North Carolina and Pennsylvania for fourth-most death row exonerations in the nation, with 12.

However, new Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry has been the architect of the death penalty’s preservation and expansion in the state. Last year, former Governor John Bel Edwards publicly expressed his opposition to the death penalty and asked the state legislature to abolish the practice. In response, every death-sentenced prisoner besides Mr. Robinson filed for clemency, with advocates hoping for a mass commutation. Outgoing governors in Illinois, Oregon, and other states have used their executive authority in the past to clear their state’s death rows. However, Governor Landry, then in his role as Attorney General, issued an advisory opinion arguing that the applications could not be considered under procedural rules, and the effort ultimately collapsed. The Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole conducted a small number of “administrative reviews” for prisoners, all ending in denials, and did not conduct a full clemency hearing for any applicant before Governor Landry took office this month.  

Governor Landry now plans to authorize additional execution methods and start up executions after a 14-year pause in the state, according to reporting by the Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. Louisiana’s only execution since 2002 occurred when Gerald Bordelon volunteered in 2010. Sources told the paper that Governor Landry will ask the state legislature to approve new methods in a special session beginning in late February—possibly nitrogen hypoxia, the firing squad, hangings, and/or the electric chair based on his public statements in favor of those methods as Attorney General. In 2018, Governor Landry wrote a letter to Governor Bel Edwards demanding legislation that approved those four methods if lethal injection became unavailable or unconstitutional. The draft legislation allowed for the manufacture of lethal injection drugs in state facilities and increased secrecy in executions.


John Simerman, In rare move, Louisiana Supreme Court toss­es death sen­tence in quadru­ple mur­der, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, January 27, 2024; James Finn, Jeff Landry to push for new death penal­ty meth­ods after 14-year pause in exe­cu­tions, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, January 26, 2024; State ex rel. Robinson v. Vannoy (La. 2024); Letter from Attorney General Landry to Governor John Bel Edwards, July 242018