content-slide-2

New Poll Shows Louisianans Prefer Life Sentences Over the Death Penalty by 2 to 1 Margin

NEW ORLEANS, LA -- A statewide poll released today shows that Louisianans prefer life sentences over the death penalty as a punishment for first degree murder by a 2 to 1 margin. Fifty-seven percent of respondents chose either life without parole (42%) or 35 years to Life (15%) as their preferred punishment for first degree murder, while just 24% selected the death penalty. Life sentences crossed partisan lines with 70% of Democrats, and a strong plurality of Independents (47%) and Republicans (44%) indicating this preference. Life sentences are especially preferred among voters under 40 (71%).

READ THE POLL: https://www.scribd.com/doc/307148799/Louisiana-Voters-on-the-Death-Penalty

The poll also found that a majority of voters did not include the death penalty among their tax priorities, which were dominated by K-12 education (88%), health care (88%), roads and highway repairs (85%), and higher education (75%). Only 37% of voters said that preserving the death penalty was a priority.

State legislators are also concerned about the dent the death penalty is making in the state budget, and will consider bills this session to ensure that new capital cases don’t drive the state further into debt. The legislature recently commissioned the Fiscal Impact Commission to study the fiscal costs of the death penalty and a report is expected in January of 2018. There is no question that the state is spending millions of dollars a year to keep the death penalty. It is estimated that the cost is more than 100 million dollars over the last 15 years. HB 1090, authored by Rep. Cedric Glover (D-Shreveport) and SB 450, authored by Sen. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans) were filed on April 5, 2016 and would establish a Capital Cost Commission to determine if funds exist before allowing capital prosecutions to proceed.

Declining support for the death penalty corresponds with a dramatic decline in death sentences in Louisiana over the last two decades. During the 1980s and ‘90s, Louisiana was sentencing approximately 80 people to death per decade. Since that time, Louisiana has experienced a nearly 75% decrease in death sentences. The state has only sentenced 54 people to death since 2000. One person was sentenced to death in 2015, while no one has been sentenced to death in 2016.  Only three people have been executed since 2000.  In contrast, the National Registry of Exoneration reports seven exonerations in the state since 2000.   

“These poll results, along with recent sentencing trends, show that Louisiana citizens are no longer willing to put their name behind the death penalty,” commented Mercedes Montagnes of the Promise of Justice Initiative. “Recognizing Louisiana’s current fiscal crisis, it’s a good time for the legislature to consider whether this is a governmental program the State really needs.”

As the Governor and legislature work to balance the budget and keep their constituents satisfied, voters report that a legislator’s support for the death penalty is the last thing they consider when voting. The primary considerations are a legislator’s votes on taxes and responsiveness to constituent concerns.

The poll of 600 Louisiana voters was conducted between March 9th – March 16th by Multiquest International and included a random sampling of voters from every parish in the state.

 

###


Mayor Landrieu Presents PJI's Client Assistance Coordinator Mara Abramson with Joseph Massenburg Memorial Award for Excellence in National Service

Mara Abramson and Mayor Landrieu

On April 5, 2016 New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recognized PJI's Client Assistance Coordinator, Mara Abramson, for her excellence in national service with the Joseph Massenburg Memorial Award. Mara is an AmeriCorps service member through Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps

Mara coordinates PJI's Client and Family Assistance Project, where she works closely with incarcerated people and their families to maintain meaningful family relationships, and provide incarcerated people with basic hygiene materials, educational materials, and basic medical needs. Mara also coordinates family visits for New Orleans-based families and families throughout Louisiana to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to visit their loved ones. 

Mayor Landrieu emphasized the importance of Mara's work and recognized the humanity of the clients that she works with every day. 

PJI Staff Mayor

 

 

PJI Files Habeas in the 16th District for the Release of Defendants Due to the State’s Failure to Provide Attorneys

Louisiana’s budget crisis and huge gap in provision of legal representation has hit the 16th District of Louisiana hard. Currently, the 16th District (Iberia, St. Martin, and St. Mary) have people languishing in jail without a lawyer. Some of the accused are juveniles facing life without parole. 

PJI’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus asks for the release of defendants whose constitutional right to due process has been violated- forcing the accused to deteriorate in jail without representation.

The District Attorney’s office receives five times the amount of funding that the overworked and underfunded public defender’s office receives. The 16th District is currently shouldering a caseload of three times the recommended guidelines for representation. 

With the current funding levels, the public defender’s office will be forced to close its doors on December 16th. 

 

Dead Man Walking The Opera: At the Intersection of Law, Art, and the Death Penalty

On March 3rd, PJI Attorney, Mercedes Montagnes, presented at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law panel for Dead Man Walking The Opera: At the Intersection of Law, Art, and the Death Penalty. 

Sister Helen Prejean's book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty brought national attention to the Death Penalty, and was later made into an award-winning film. In 2000, the San Francisco Opera created an opera based on the book and movie. Loyola University New Orleans created a symposium including author Sister Helen Prejean, the art director of the opera, Robert Lyall, tenured Loyola professor and PJI board member, Andrea Armstrong, John Thompson, Bill Quigley, and Mercedes Montagnes, to discuss the evolution of the death penalty, lived experiences on death row, and the powerful impacts that art can have in creating justice.

Attorney Montagnes discussed extreme heat conditions on death row, solitary confinement, the state of lethal injection in Louisiana, as well as the lack of medical care that men and women on death row and other incarcerated people live with every day as they seek relief.

 

 

Attorneys Representing Lamondre Tucker File a Petition with the U.S. Supreme Court Challenging the Constitutionality of Capital Punishment

Attorneys representing death row prisoner Lamondre Tucker will file a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court challenging his death sentence and the constitutionality of capital punishment. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsberg called for reconsideration of the constitutionality of the death penalty in America in his dissent in Glossip v. Gross. Justice Breyer noted the inherent unfairness of the death penalty "underscores the need to reconsider the validity of capital punishment under the Eighth Amendment again."  Even Justice Scalia has recently said he "wouldn't be surprised" if the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional.   

The Growing National Consensus Against the Death Penalty

Standards of decency have evolved across the country, and there is now a broad consensus moving away from the death penalty, recognizing that a life sentence without parole is a harsh and sufficiently severe sentence. Thirty-three jurisdictions have either in law or practice abandoned this increasingly archaic punishment. In the past two decades, new death sentences have dropped from 315 per year to just 49 in 2015. See Death Penalty Information Center, Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report.

The question of when and how capital punishment will end has reached national prominence.  President Obama recently called the death penalty "deeply troubling," and the issue has been discussed by Matt Ford (The Death Penalty's Last Stand, The Atlantic, April 2015), and in the New York Times (The Death Penalty Endgame, 1/16/2016) among others.

Tucker's Case Demonstrates Why the Death Penalty is Unconstitutional

The death penalty in America is broken. Lamondre Tucker’s case is emblematic of how broken it is.  Lamondre Tucker was four months past his 18th birthday, with a 74 IQ, when arrested and charged with the murder of Tavia Sills.  Lamondre was the last person sentenced to death under the Confederate Flag that flew outside the Courthouse on a Monument to the Confederacy's Last Stand in Caddo Parish. His prosecutor was Dale Cox, who until recently, was the most aggressive death penalty prosecutor in the state. (James Gill, Capital Punishment a Caddo Parish Cottage Industry in Louisiana, Caddo largely owes its pre-eminence to just two prosecutors, Dale Cox and Hugo Holland.).

In Caddo Parish, over the past decade, seven African-American men and one white woman (convicted with an African-American boyfriend co-defendant) have been put on death row. Two of the seven were eighteen years old, and four have an IQ under 75.

As Justice Breyer noted in his Glossip dissent, “the imposition of the death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried.” Justice Ginsberg observed in an interview at Duke Law School, " [L]ast year, I think 43 of the states of the United States had no executions, only seven did, and the executions that took place tended to be concentrated in certain counties in certain states. So the idea that luck of the draw, if you happened to commit a crime in one county in Louisiana, the chances that you would get the death penalty are very high. On the other hand, if you commit the same deed in Minnesota, the chances that you would get the death penalty are almost nil. So that was another one of the considerations that had become clear as the years went on."

The Risk of Wrongful Conviction Remains Too High

Cecelia Kappel, who argued Tucker’s direct appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, and represents him on the petition, said "Lamondre's conviction has all of the hallmarks of a case where the justice system got it wrong in the first instance: overzealous prosecutors; overwhelmeddefense lawyers; and a mentally impaired teenager interrogated over a number of days. If we have trouble determining the guilty from the innocent, how can we trust our system to figure out who should live and who should die?" The Death Penalty Information Center reports that one hundred and fifty-six (156) individuals have been exonerated from death row, ten from Louisiana.  A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences projected that one out of every twenty-five death sentences involved the conviction of an innocent person.

The Death Penalty Is Not Reserved for the Worst of the Worst

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2005 to bar the execution of juvenile offenders under the age of 18 (Roper v. Simmons), and in 2002 to bar the execution of persons with intellectual disability (Atkins v. Virginia). In each instance, the Court explained that the evolving standards of decency that mark a civilized country warranted the limitation on capital punishment.  

Tucker’s case speaks to broader problem. He was eighteen years old when charged with murder, with 74 IQ. The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the claim that these impairments, when taken together, make him morally indistinguishable from those individuals the Court has already deemed ineligible for execution.  The petition points out that Louisiana has a significant problem in identifying the most culpable of offenders. Even nationally, of the 28 people executed in 2015, 68% suffered from crippling mental frailties or experienced extreme childhood trauma and abuse according to a report released by Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice. Like Lamondre, a significant number of the executed individuals had multiple impairments.  Tucker’s case is an example of how juries -- sometimes for systemic reasons like overzealous prosecutors or overworked defense lawyers, and in other instances because of the facts of a crime or the appearance of the defendant  --  are unable to distinguish between the impaired and the culpable.   

“We do not always recognize justice in our own time, but now is the moment – and this is an appropriate case -- for the Court to consider whether the standards of decency have evolved since 1976” said Ben Cohen, counsel of record for Tucker. “How we decide who should live and who should die, no longer comports with our ideals of human dignity.”  Cohen referred to the opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), in which he was counsel, where the Court observed “The rule of evolving standards of decency with specific marks on the way to full progress and mature judgment means that resort to the penalty must be reserved for the worst of crimes and limited in its instances of application. In most cases justice is not better served by terminating the life of the perpetrator rather than confining him and preserving the possibility that he and the system will find ways to allow him to understand the enormity of his offense.”