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Elayn Hunt Correctional Center's Lifers' Association Banquet

Certificate of Appreciation

 

PJI's Client and Family Assistance Coordinator, Mara Abramson, was honored at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center's Lifers' Association Annual Banquet. Elayn Hunt's Lifers' Association serves to organize, inspire, support, and empower incarcerated individuals in their efforts to succeed.

Mara spoke at the banquet, talking to incarcerated men about the services PJI's Client and Family Assistance program provides, including family visits, correspondence, basic medical and hygiene care, books, and general advocacy.

Mara also discussed current trends in criminal justice reform and the state of over-incarceration in Louisiana, quoting Governor John Bel Edwards when he said "You will never convince me that the people of Louisiana are innately more sinister or criminal than elsewhere. So what are we doing?"

Mara concluded her presentation by telling the Association members "All of this is to say, I know that sometimes it can feel hopeless. I know that it can just feel like you're going through the motions, trying to make it another day, feeling like there's no one out there who is looking out for you. But I want you to know that there is a huge community out here advocating that you, and people like you, get a real chance to succeed."

 


Unjust Conviction Sparks Public Outcry to Release Rodricus Crawford

Rodricus Crawford's Family, Friends, Attorney, and Supporters at the September 7th Oral Argument.

 

The September 7th Louisiana Supreme Court oral argument heard Rodricus Crawford's appeal attesting to his factual innocence. Attorneys Cecelia Kappel and Ben Cohen cited many examples of insufficient evidence presented by the Caddo Parish District Attorney's Office, as well as evidence of Mr. Crawford's innocence. Mr. Crawford's attorneys also criticized the notorious prosecutor, Dale Cox, for suggesting to the jury that Jesus Christ would impose the death penalty.  

The story of Rodricus Crawford's unjust conviction has been captured nationally. Religious leaders have signed on to Rodricus Crawford's case with a brief which opposes the imposition of the death penalty in the case and to protest the DA's use of Jesus Christ to persuade jurors to convict the young man based on scant evidence. 

The full hearing can be viewed and downloaded here.

Journalists, concerned community members, and Shreveport natives are not the only people asking how this tragic incident became a murder trial. The justices themselves wondered aloud at the hearing - Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll asking several times "How did this become a first-degree murder case?" More questions centered around the minuscule amount of evidence, and the complete lack of motive Rodricus Crawford had to commit the alleged crime. 

Justice Knoll notably said "With a child that has an autopsy had discovered had sepsis and ask that this man be put to death on weak circumstances. You don't even have a motive." Miles Jay Oliver specifically noted in his article in the Shreveport Times that the shaky pathology of the entire case was highly disputed by experts. 

In addition to questioning Mr. Crawford's guilt in this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court Justices also brought up multiple errors in procedure by the state regarding evidence, and improper handling of jury selection- violating Batson using racial profiling during jury selection. 

Yolanda Young, writing for The Shreveport Times, made a plea to Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart, to drop the charges in light of the lack of evidence and asked the citizens of Shreveport to become active in voicing opposition to Mr. Crawford's imprisonment by saying: 

"What I'm asking is for us to join together on this one thing, to free this one man. Watch the hearing, and if you believe there is one shred of evidence that points to Crawford's guilt, so be it. But if you watch it, and see the truth in it, that this man is innocent, do something." 

 

 

Hearing on Rodericus Crawford’s Actual Innocence Set for September 7, 2016

On September 7, 2016, at 9:30 a.m. the Louisiana Supreme Court will hear arguments in Rodricus Crawford’s case.  Crawford is second on the docket for the Court.  Live broadcasting of the argument is at the Louisiana Supreme Court’s website at www.lasc.org.  Crawford has been in prison for more than four years.  He is currently on death row. 

On February 16, 2012, Rodricus Crawford’s one-year-old son died in his care.  His son was suffering pneumonia, and succumbed to sepsis during the night.  Sepsis is the one of the leading causes of death in infants.  Shoddy work by the State’s pathologist resulted in the case being identified as a homicide, and Crawford being prosecuted for first degree murder.

Crawford’s case comes out of Caddo Parish, which has been highlighted by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard as an outlier county, responsible for a disproportionate number of death sentences.  The report identifies the combination of over-zealous prosecutors, overwhelmed defense lawyers, and racism as the reason for these disproportionate death sentences.  Crawford was prosecuted by Dale Cox, who was described as one of America’s “deadliest prosecutors.”  

Race permeates much of this case.  A study done on Caddo Parish, LA showed that African Americans are struck from death penalty cases at three times the rate of non-black jurors.  Discrimination based upon race or religion is anathema to the core values of the state and the country.  And yet, a new empirical study indicates that roughly a quarter of those called for jury service in Louisiana capital cases were disqualified for their religious views.  Sixty percent of African-Americans were removed based upon their conscientious views on the death penalty. It appears – from those responding to his 911 call, to the ER doctor, the Medical Examiner and the trial prosecutor – that state officials jumped to the wrong conclusion that Crawford was guilty based in part upon their racial bias and stereotypes.  

Rodricus Crawford’s Brief on Direct Appeal raised twenty-three different issues, including the strong argument that he is actually innocent.  There is no confession, no eye-witness testimony that Mr. Crawford ever hurt his child, and no DNA evidence; indeed, the evidence indicates that there was not even a crime.   The Promise of Justice has grave concerns that Crawford the State of Louisiana has sentenced an innocent man to death.   

After excluding from the jury all those who opposed the death penalty based upon their religious views, the prosecutor, Dale Cox, argued to those remaining that the teachings of Jesus Christ required the imposition of the death penalty on Rodricus Crawford.   Over one hundred clergy filed an amicus brief at the Louisiana Supreme Court, explaining that the prosecutor’s argument was both wrong as a matter of faith, and improper as a matter of justice. 

The State of Louisiana’s Brief is here.  The only basis for the State’s conviction is the claim of a single doctor, who could only claim that -- more likely than not -- it was a homicide.  This is not the kind of confidence we expect out of our justice system when assessing a misdemeanor, let alone a capital case. 

In response to the State’s Brief, Crawford’s lawyers filed a Reply Brief, and an affidavit from Dr. Jeffrey S. Kahn, Professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology, M.D.-PHD who concluded “the facts presented in this case are entirely consistent with an overwhelming Streptococcus pneumonia infection which, tragically, resulted in the death of this child,” an affidavit from  Dr. Philip D. Fernsten, who swore that the State’s medical examiner made material errors in his testimony; and an affidavit from Dr. Thomas Young, who swore to a “reasonable degree of medical certainty” “the cause of the death [was] really not a mystery” noting that the autopsy revealed streptococcus, bacterial infection in the blood which can lead to “sudden unexpected death not only in susceptible infants and toddlers but also in susceptible teenagers and adults.”  Taken with the evidence provided in the Motion for New Trial, the evidence is overwhelming that Rodricus Lott’s death was not a homicide,  but a tragic death from illness. 

Out of grave concern over the case, the Innocence Project filed an Amicus Brief at the Louisiana Supreme Court, supporting Mr. Crawford explaining how the medical science established that Crawford was innocent.  Nine separate doctors who have reviewed the evidence in this case have provided affidavits, reports or testimony, asserting that it is unlikely that this case was a homicide let alone a first degree murder.

 

Cecelia Kappel is arguing the case on behalf of Rodricus Crawford.  She can be reached by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

Donations to assist the Crawford family attend the oral argument can be made here, including the submission line “Crawford”. 100% of the proceeds of your donation will be used to cover Mr. Crawford’s family’s travel costs.

 

 

NY Times Investigates Extreme Heat and 8th Amendment Violations

As July 2016 breaks records all across the southern United States for extreme heat, many jails and prisons across the south are still without temperature control for incarcerated people - putting the lives of many prone to heat related conditions at risk. The New York Times profiles this issue in Alan Blinder's latest piece, interviewing PJI Attorney, Mercedes Montagnes.

“It’s almost impossible for courts to deny the constitutional violation because extreme heat undoubtedly exposes individuals to substantial risk of serious harm,” said Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer for three inmates with health issues who challenged conditions on Louisiana’s death row. “Now what we’re grappling with is the remedy.”

 

Death Row Exoneree John Thompson Calls for Federal Investigation of Orleans District Attorney's Office

Death row exonoree, John Thompson, held a press conference yesterday at Resurrection After Exoneration to announce the filing of his complaint calling for a federal investigation of Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, starting with former ADA Jim Williams.

The petition, filed with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, demands an investigation of “individual and systemic abuses of prosecutorial power in Orleans Parish” in light of the office’s “disturbing pattern of lawlessness, corruption, and prosecutorial misconduct”.

PJI Deputy Director, Mercedes Montagnes, PJI Board Member and Loyola Law School Professor, Andrea Armstrong, and Orleans Parish Chief District Defender, Derwyn Bunton, accompanied John Thompson in person at the press conference. New Orleans Innocence Project Director, Emily Maw, Skyped in to speak on the disproportionally high rate of wrongful convictions out of New Orleans.

John Thompson explained how lucky he felt to have been on death row because it meant he was afforded an attorney to continue working on his case until his innocence was uncovered. He claimed there are hundreds of others just like him rotting away in Louisiana prisons who have no one looking into their cases. Mercedes Montagnes spoke about the irony of John Thompson’s gratitude for being sentenced to death given the difficult conditions of being housed in solitary conferment and having limited contact with family members. Having endured these isolating conditions, and surviving seven execution warrants, John Thompson considers himself a victim of attempted murder. John Thompson feels that he has no recourse to obtain justice for the crimes committed against him. He is hopeful that the DOJ will step in to create an accountability structure for the Orleans prosecutor’s office. 

Read more about the press conference on Fox8, Nola.com, The Advocate, and WWTL