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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.”

Over 100 Louisiana Religious Leaders Oppose the Imposition of the Death Penalty in Crawford Case

 

Brief of Louisiana Religious Leaders

More than 100 religious leaders, including Archbishop Aymond, have signed an amicus brief objecting to Dale Cox's sacrilegious argument to the jury in Rodricus Crawford's case that Jesus Christ commanded the death penalty for the killing of a child. The leaders, which hail from many different faiths, argue that Cox misquoted and misinterpreted scripture and misled the jury into thinking Jesus favored the death penalty for Crawford. Yesterday, the brief was filed at the Louisiana Supreme Court. Interfaith leaders held a prayer circle on the steps of the Louisiana Supreme court asking for peace and justice. 

The religious leaders who signed on to the brief come from all faiths and all regions of Louisiana. They are Louisiana ministers, sisters, priests, deacons, rabbis and other ordained clergy and religious people and organizations who oppose the imposition of the death penalty in this case. They asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to throw out the death sentence imposed  upon of Rodricus Crawford because the prosecutor misquoted and misinterpreted the Bible while advocating for the death penalty. 

The Brief observes that the trial prosecutor, attorney  Dale Cox, said Jesus would want the jury to vote for death.  "Woe be unto you, who would harm on of these.  Now, this is the Jesus Christ of the New Testament.  It would be better if though you were never born.  You shall have a millstone cast around your neck and you will be thrown into the sea.... the thing about Christ is in both cases, He reached a just verdict which is what the law asks you to reach in this case:  a just verdict.  Not the mean Christ, not the nice Christ, but the just Christ.  And that's why I think that we should not lightly disregard His words when He talks about what He would do to someone who hurt one of these...what He would do." 

The religious leaders advised the Louisiana Supreme Court that this was a misinterpretation of the Bible in religious terms and a legal problem which forces the court to get into the individual religious beliefs of prosecutors, judges, and juries.

Religious Leader Sign

 

 

 Brief of Innocence Network

The Innocence Network filed an Amicus Brief on behalf of Rodricus Crawford, noting that medical evidence indicated that the victim – Mr. Crawford’s son – died from septic shock associated with pneumonia rather than as a result of a homicide.  The Amicus Brief  notes that Crawford’s conviction and death sentence is paradigmatic of wrongful convictions based upon faulty science. 

 

 

For more about Crawford’s case see .  See Rachel Aviv, "Revenge Killing: Race and the death penalty in a Louisiana Parish,"The New Yorker, July 6, 2015.