Caddo Parish Elects First Black District Attorney As Spotlight Shines on Death Penalty and Jury Selection Controversies

Caddo Parish, Louisiana, known nationally for its aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, has elected its first black District Attorney. In a November 21 runoff election conducted against the backdrop of controversial remarks about the death penalty by the current DA and a threatened civil rights lawsuit over systemic racial discrimination by Caddo Parish prosecutors in jury selection, former judge James E. Stewart, Sr. defeated current Caddo Parish prosecutor Dhu Thompson, 55% to 45%. Ten days before the election, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center announced that it intends to sue Caddo Parish over the District Attorney's office's practice of striking black citizens from juries at three times the rate of other jurors. James Craig, co-director of the New Orleans-based non-profit law center, called the racially-biased jury strikes "a blight on our criminal justice system." A recent study by the human rights group Reprieve Australia had revealed that Caddo prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors but only 15% of other jurors. (Click image to enlarge.) The study showed that Thompson's exercise of juror challenges was even more racially disproportionate, striking more than half of all prospective black jurors but fewer than 1 in 6 of all other jurors. Craig said that the announcement of the suit was not intended to influence the election: "This is not a problem of one person. This is a culture that needs to be acknowledged and changed...In the absence of concrete, specific changes in the office’s culture and approach to jury selection, this practice will continue under the administration of either of the two final candidates for district attorney. For this reason, no matter who prevails in the special election this month, the MacArthur Justice Center will proceed with the federal civil rights lawsuit that we are preparing to file." The suit is seeking an injunction to block practices that result in under-representation of blacks on juries. In his election-night victory remarks, Stewart pledged "to bring professionalism and ethics back to the district attorney’s office." 

Deadliest Prosecutors, Worst Defense Lawyers Linked to High Rates of Death Sentences in Heavy-Use Counties

Prisoners sentenced to death in the small number of U.S. counties that most aggressively pursue the death penalty often suffer the "double whammy" of getting "both the deadliest prosecutors in America and some of the country’s worst capital defense lawyers," according to an article in Slate by Robert L. Smith. In reviewing the the unusally high numbers of death verdicts from 3 counties that are near the top of the nation in disproportionately producing death sentences over the last 5 years, Smith found not only high rates of seeking death but a pattern of inadequate capital defense representation. In Maricopa County, Arizona, the nation's second highest producer of death sentences since 2010, two capital trial lawyers had, between them, represented 10 clients who were sentenced to death. Serious concerns about the quality of representation were also present in the two counties with the nation's highest level of death sentences per capita since 2010, Duval County, Florida, and Caddo Parish, Louisiana. 75% of defendants sentenced to death in Caddo Parish since 2005 were represented at trial by lawyers who would be found unqualified to try capital cases under capital defense standards recently put in place in the state. One Caddo Parish lawyer, Daryl Gold, was trial counsel for nearly 20% of the people sent to death row in Louisiana from 2005 to 2014. He has been suspended from practicing law three times and received 14 private reprimands, and was permitted to continue representing poor defendants in capital cases even though he was barred from taking on private clients. In Duval County, a newly elected public defender fired respected senior capital litigators and installed as deputy chief and head of homicide defense a lawyer, Refik Eler, who has at least 8 former clients on death row - the most of any lawyer in Florida. Eler has already been found ineffective by the Florida Supreme Court in three capital cases for failing to investigate both guilt and penalty issues. 

Amid Threatening Comments by Current DA, Death Penalty Dominates Caddo Parish Prosecutor Election

Capital punishment is dominating the discussion in the runoff election between James E. Stewart, Sr. and Dhu Thompson to succeed acting Caddo Parish, Louisiana District Attorney Dale Cox. Cox's controversial statements about the death penalty - including that the state needs to "kill more people" - have focused national attention on the parish, which ranks among the two percent of U.S. counties responsible for 56 percent of the inmates on death row nationwide. On October 27, defense attorneys in the death penalty retrial of Eric Mickelson requested Cox's removal from the case after they overheard him saying he wanted to "cut their (expletive) throats." The attention surrounding Cox, as well as the 2014 exoneration of Glenn Ford and charges that Cox may have put an innocent man, Rodricus Crawford, on death row has forced Stewart and Thompson to focus on their proposed capital punishment policies. Stewart said he would place an emphasis on ethics and professionalism in the DA's office: "The evaluation and screening of cases with an ethical and professional standard alleviates the Glenn Ford type of cases. You don’t get so caught up in the case that you miss certain things along the way, and that can happen if people are not looking at the case correctly." He said he'd like to get rid of peremptory challenges, in which prosecutors can strike jurors without cause. A recent study found that Caddo prosecutors had systematically employed peremptory challenges in a racially biased manner. Thompson said he believes the office has approached the use of the death penalty in a thoughtful way, adding, "What we do is seek justice based on the facts and merits of the case." He also said he does not believe that Glenn Ford was innocent and that the 30 years Ford spent in prison was appropriate.

Amid Unavailability of Lethal Injection Drugs, States Push Legal Limits to Carry Out Executions

"Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the New York Times, summarizing the ongoing battles that have led states to adopt new drug sources or alternative methods of execution. Several states have obtained or sought drugs using sources that may violate pharmaceutical regulations. For the execution of Alfredo Prieto, Virginia obtained pentobarbital from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which purchased it from a compounding pharmacy whose identity is shielded by the state's secrecy law. "Even if the transactions between states do not comply with law, there is no recourse for death-sentenced prisoners," said Megan McCracken, an expert in lethal injection at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Both Nebraska and Ohio received warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that their attempts to purchase sodium thiopental from overseas suppliers violated federal law regarding the importation of drugs. Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of its own execution protocol, substituting an unauthorized chemical, potassium acetate, for the potassium chloride its regulations require. Other states have turned to alternative execution methods: Tennessee reauthorized use of the electric chair, while Oklahoma passed a bill to make nitrogen gas asphyxiation its backup method. Louisiana prison officials also recommended using nitrogen gas, but the state has not taken action on that recommendation. The scramble for lethal injection drugs has delayed executions across the country. A challenge to Mississippi's protocol has halted executions until at least next year. A Montana judge put executions on hold because the state's proposed drug cocktail violated state law, and either the drugs that comply with state law are not produced in the U.S. and may not be imported or the manufacturer refuses to sell the drug for executions. In Oklahoma, the Attorney General requested an indefinite hold in order to review lethal injection procedures after the state obtained the wrong drug for the execution of Richard Glossip.

STUDIES: Louisiana Study Reports Stark Death-Penalty Disparities Linked to Race and Gender of Victims

A new study by Professor Frank Baumgartner of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Tim Lyman, a Documentation Specialist in New Orleans, reports stark disparities in Louisiana death sentences and executions depending upon the race and gender of the homicide victim. The study - to be published in the Loyola University of New Orleans Journal of Public Interest Law - finds that defendants accused of killing white victims are nearly twice as likely to be sentenced to death and nearly four times as likely to be executed than defendants accused of killing black victims. The disparities are even greater when both race and gender are compared. Defendants accused of killing white women are sentenced to death at nearly 12 times the rate of defendants accused of killing black men (56.94 vs. 4.88 death sentences per 1,000 homicides), and executed at a rate that is 48 times higher (11.52 vs. 0.24 executions per 1,000 homicides). The authors find that both the race and gender of victims affect sentencing outcomes in murder cases, but that death sentencing and execution rates are higher in cases involving white victims, irrespective or gender, and in cases involving female victims, irrespective of race. 72% of murder victims in Louisiana since 1976 have been black, but just 33% of death sentence have involved black victims. Cases involving black male victims had the lowest rate of death sentences and executions per homicide of any class of victim. 12,693 black males have been murdered in Louisiana since 1976 (61% of murder victims), with only 3 executions (0.02% of these murders; 8% of Louisiana executions). (Click image to enlarge)

STUDIES: Racial Bias in Jury Selection

A new study of trials in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, revealed that potential jurors who were black were much more likely to be struck from juries than non-blacks. The results were consistent with findings from Alabama, North Carolina, and other parts of Louisiana, highlighting an issue that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. In Caddo Parish, an area known for its many death sentences, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors, but only 15% of other jurors, according to the study by Reprieve Australia. The racial composition of the juries appeared to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the cases. The study found that no defendants were acquitted by juries with 2 or fewer black jurors, but 19% were acquitted when 5 or more jurors were black. In an Alabama study, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove 82% of eligible black potential jurors from trials in which the death penalty was imposed. A study of death penalty cases in North Carolina found that prosecutors struck 53% of black potential jurors but only 26% of others. (Click image to enlarge.)

Louisiana Executions on Hold Until State Addresses Lethal Injection Issues

A federal judge in Louisiana has delayed five executions until at least July 2016 as state officials struggle to determine how to conduct executions using lethal injection. Christopher Sepulvado, a death row inmate whose execution has been rescheduled several times over the last two years, is challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana's execution method. The Department of Corrections requested that a hearing related to Sepulvado's challenge be put on hold because, "it would be a waste of resources and time to litigate this matter at present," because of ongoing developments relating to the availability of lethal injection drugs. Louisiana does not currently have an execution protocol. Its last protocol, however, was the same as that used in Arizona's botched execution of Joseph Wood: a combination of hydromorphone and midazolam. The state allegedly lied to a hospital in order to obtain one of the drugs in 2014, telling a pharmacist that the drug was needed for "a medical patient," not an execution. The Department of Corrections' last known supply of the execution drugs has now expired.

Death Row Exoneree Glenn Ford Dies One Year After Release

Glenn Ford, who was exonerated last year after spending almost 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at the age of 65. At the time of his release, Ford was the nation's longest-serving death row exoneree. Just hours after his death, Ford's case was cited in the dissenting opinion of Justice Breyer in Glossip v. Gross, as providing “striking” evidence “that the death penalty has been wrongly imposed.” Justice Breyer mentioned innocence, prosecutorial wrongdoing, the length of time inmates spend on death row, and the unreliability of capital convictions among the reasons why he now “believe[s] it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.” In 1984, Ford was convicted of murder on the testimony of a witness who later said police had helped her make up her story. Ford's attorney had never tried a case before a jury. After Ford's exoneration, the lead prosecutor on his case, A.M. "Marty" Stroud III, issued a public apology. He expressed his belief in Ford's complete innocence, saying, "There was no technicality here. Crafty lawyering did not secure the release of a criminal...Pursuant to the review and investigation of cold homicide cases, investigators uncovered evidence that exonerated Mr. Ford. Indeed, this evidence was so strong that had it been disclosed during of the investigation there would not have been sufficient evidence to even arrest Mr. Ford!" Stroud urged the state to grant Ford compensation for his wrongful conviction, but no compensation was granted before Ford's death.  

Gary Clements, Director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, tells DPIC that "At 2:11 [Monday] morning, Glenn slipped away very quietly and peacefully. He was held and surrounded by people who cared about him, and was listening to a song he loved."