On September 28, Damon Thibodeaux was freed from death row in Louisiana after an extensive investigation, including DNA testing and the cooperation of Jefferson Parrish District Attorney Paul Connick. Thibodeaux was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of his cousin. He at first confessed to the attack after a nine-hour interrogation by detectives. He recanted a few hours later and claimed his confession was coerced. In releasing Thibodeaux, Connick said, "I have concluded that the primary evidence in this case, the confession, is unreliable. Without the confession the conviction can't stand, and therefore in the interest of justice, it must be vacated." Thibodeaux is the 141st person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, and the 18th person released through DNA evidence. The Innocence Project in New York, which worked on his case for years, counts Thibodeaux as the 300th exoneration achieved through DNA testing in the U.S. (capital and non-capital cases). Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, said, “The 300th exoneration is an extraordinary event, and it couldn’t be more fitting that it’s an innocent man on death row who gave a false confession. People have a very hard time with the concept that an innocent person could confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. But it happens a lot. It’s the ultimate risk that an innocent man could be executed.”
In Louisiana, a lack of adequate funding for indigent defense in death penalty cases is causing a critical shortage of qualified counsel and long delays in cases. John Di Giulio, a member of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, said that public defenders and regional offices that represent death penalty clients are “overworked and underfunded.” Mike Mitchell, chief public defender of the East Baton Rouge Public Defender’s office, attributed the shortage of lawyers to the demanding nature of death penalty trials. He said, “It’s tough work. A lot of attorneys steer away from it. Historically it’s been tough work for little pay.” He estimated that representing one capital murder case can cost his office a minimum of $100,000, which does not include fees for expert witnesses and investigation. In many cases, the prosecution has more resources. The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections has spent $8 million so far on the prosecution and defense of the "Angola 5," inmates at Angola charged with killing a security officer at the prison. By comparison, the state's Capital Assistance Project, has a total annual budget of about $1 million. Mitchell predicts that the shortage of death penalty-certified attorneys and the lack of funding for capital defense will further delay death-penalty cases, which already take years to come to trial. Louisiana has carried out two executions in the last 10 years. Pete Adams, the head of the district attorneys association, said that if local public defender offices stop taking new capital murder cases, “it would squarely place the cost of capital defense in the lap of the Legislature.”
A recent study published by the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University pointed to numerous problems with Louisiana’s death penalty. In particular, the study found:
- Per capita, Louisiana has one of the highest wrongful-conviction rates in the country. More people have been exonerated in Louisiana in the last ten years than executed.
- Within Louisiana’s most aggressive death penalty districts, white victims are disproportionately targeted for the death penalty by district attorneys.
- The death penalty is applied in only 1% of murder cases; of the other 99% of cases, many go unsolved.
- The death penalty in Louisiana has not been reserved for “the worst of the worst” defendants. Louisiana’s death row is overrepresented by individuals with childhood trauma, intellectual disabilities, and mental illnesses.
- Reforms are needed to better assist families of murder victims, including allocating more resources to address unsolved murders and improving access to counseling and mental health services.
The study also reviewed Catholic social teaching on capital punishment. Read a short summary of the report here.
A recent op-ed written by retired Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal F. Calogero Jr. highlights the state’s history of violating the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brady v. Maryland. According to this ruling, prosecutors are required to disclose evidence favorable to the defense, and that failure to do so violates the defendant’s right to due process. Calogero cited a report by the Innocence Project New Orleans which found that favorable evidence was withheld in 25% of the cases of men sentenced to death in the Orleans Parish from 1973-2002. Calogero wrote, "I still believe the majority of prosecutors are fair-minded, but it is no longer possible to call these violations rare. The problem is not rogue prosecutors; it's a system that heavily incentivizes the winning of convictions at any cost and provides no penalty for breaking rules. To ensure that citizens have access to fair trials and accurate results, we must work together to promote accountability and transparency.” The op-ed offers two suggestions for reform in this area: basic regulation of deals given to jail-house informants and a reorganization of the system so that disclosure is presumed. Calogero concludes, “Louisiana has a history of Brady violations. This is not because Louisiana has more rogue prosecutors. Rather, we have failed to provide tools and guidance to prevent these problems. Enacting reforms will prevent wrongful convictions and restore citizens' confidence in our justice system.” Read full op-ed below.
On January 10, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed (8-1) the murder conviction of Juan Smith because the New Orleans District Attorney's Office had withheld critical evidence that would have been favorable to Smith at his trial. Smith had been convicted of murder in the course of an armed robbery based on the sole eyewitness testimony of Larry Boatner. There was no DNA, fingerprints, or other physical evidence that linked Smith to the 1995 crime. Appellate attorneys later learned that prosecutors failed to disclose reports of initial interviews with Boatner in which he said he could not describe the intruders and had not seen their faces. Relying on Brady v. Maryland, which requires a state to disclose evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment, the Court overturned Smith’s conviction, stating, "Boatner's testimony was the only evidence linking Smith to the crime. And Boatner's undisclosed statements directly contradict his testimony . . . .Boatner's undisclosed statements were plainly material." The decision in favor of Smith was the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions revealing a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. According to the Orleans Public Defender’s Office, 28 convictions obtained by the district attorney’s office were later ruled to have been tainted by Brady violations. (Smith is on death row in Louisiana because the conviction in the above case (now overturned) was used to help obtain a death sentence against him in another murder. This decision will likely assist him in challenging his death sentence.)