Jim Brown: A new furor over capital punishment in Louisiana
Down in the Bayou State, there’s a clamor for more executions. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry makes no bones about his feelings. More executions -- including nitrogen gas, hangings, firing squads, electrocution and lethal injection. But a federal judge has put all executions in Louisiana on hold for another year.
There is a reason the death penalty is rarely enforced anymore, particularly in the federal judicial system. Too many innocent victims are being convicted, based on cover-ups and the withholding of exculpatory evidence by some federal and state prosecutors. A recent study published in the National Academy of Sciences concludes that some 4.1 percent of inmates on death row are innocent. More than 4 percent! If that were the rate of airplanes crashing, would you fly?
My alma mater, the University of North Carolina, completed a death penalty study in 2016, and found that in Louisiana, 127 of 155 death penalty cases over the past 40 years ended in reversal, some 10 points above the national average.
Since 2000, there have been only two executions while seven people in Louisiana, about to be put to death, were found to be innocent. The main reason? Prosecutorial misconduct.
For years, the Bayou State has held the title of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. It now has taken on the dubious title of having case after case of death row inmates being convicted based on the withholding of evidence that would prove their innocence.
New Orleans has become the cesspool for the innocent being convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death. One of the most egregious is the case of New Orleanian John Thompson, who was convicted back in 1982 of first-degree murder and given the death sentence.? He came within days of being executed after spending 14 years on death row and 18 years total in prison. Five different prosecutors were involved in the case and all knew that a blood test, and other key evidence that showed Thompson was innocent, had been withheld by the prosecution.
On his deathbed and dying of cancer, one of the prosecutors confessed to a colleague that he had hidden the exculpatory blood sample.
The colleague waited five more years before admitting that he too knew of the hidden evidence. Thompson, after 18 years, received a new trial, and his lawyers were finally able to produce pieces of evidence that had been kept from Thompson’s defense attorneys, that overwhelming showed he was innocent. The new jury took less than 35 minutes to find him not guilty.
Hiding evidence that can find the accused innocent is nothing new for prosecutors in New Orleans, both in state and federal court as well as with the FBI. The Innocence Project of New Orleans reviewed a number of convictions over the past 25 years in the city and concluded that prosecutors have a “legacy” of suppressing evidence. The Project said 36 men convicted in Orleans Parish alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Nineteen have since had their sentences overturned or reduced as a result. In 19 of 25 capital cases, the prosecutors withheld favorable evidence.
Then there is the chilling case of Dan Bright, convicted and put on death row for a murder he did not commit. Evidence came out years after his conviction that the FBI, thanks to a credible informant, had been in possession of the name of the actual killer all along. Luckily for Bright, because of the unconstitutional withholding of key evidence by the prosecution and the FBI, his conviction was thrown out, and he now is a free man.
The foreman of White’s jury, who recommended that he be put to death, was Kathleen Norman. She was so in-censed over White’s wrongful conviction and the hiding of evidence that would have cleared him by the FBI, that she became head of the Louisiana Innocence project, helping others like White mount a credible defense.
Questionable conduct by rogue prosecutors who withhold information that could prove the innocence of an accused is far too prevalent. Whether one is for or against the death penalty, there is ample evidence that convictions of a capital crime can be a crapshoot based on the whims of some prosecutors who too often withhold evidence that shows the accused is innocent. Bobby Lee Swagger says in the movie Shooter, “This is the world we live in, and justice is not always fulfilled!”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all of his columns at www.jimbrownusa.com.