Activists Push for Death Penalty Reform

By Morgan Jackson
Data News Weekly Contributor

Community members, organization leaders, and former Angola inmates gathered to discuss issues regarding the death penalty in New Orleans at Café Istanbul in the Healing Center on Jan. 28, 2019. There are currently 67 people on Louisiana’s Death Row; 73 percent of which are African-American or Hispanic.

“If there was ever an example of why you shouldn’t have the death penalty, Willy Frances the famous Louisiana Case, would be the perfect example,” said Michael Cahoon, the organizer for the Promise of Justice Initiative. “A 16-year-old boy was convicted, had to be executed twice because he was so small, he could not fit in the electric chair. That should be enough right there, but it still persists.”

Cahoon joined Laverne Thompson, the wife of former inmate, John Thompson, and Jerome Morgan, who was placed in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to advocate for repealing the death penalty.

Justice & Beyond, a New Orleans-based association of community leaders and organizations that come together to discuss challenging problems hosted this event to educate the public on injustices facing the incarcerated and prisoners facing the death penalty. Racial disparities also exist when examining who received the death penalty, the advocates said.

“Conditions in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison produce a death rate of 300 percent higher than the national average, mostly due to inadequate Mental Health Care and inhumane treatment of the prisoners that are held there,” Cahoon said.

It is also an expensive burden on the state. “The death penalty takes an immense amount of resources for such a small number of people. Since 2000, we have spent $155 million on our death penalty, which has yielded two executions,” Cahoon added.

Executions cost millions of dollars to perform, experts said. Studies show that executions also do not result in a drop in the crime rate.

“The first study done in Louisiana on whether or not the death penalty prevents violent crime was done in 1833,” Cahoon said. “States that have gotten rid of the death penalty; crime has actually gone down,” Cahoon added. This shows that there is no relation between the death penalty and crime.

“John Thompson was the sixth Louisiana Death Row exoneree in 2003,” said Laverne Thompson, his wife. On May 8, 1985, John Thompson was sentenced to death row on two separate crimes: murder and carjacking. An investigator found evidence that had never been disclosed 30 days before his execution – the bloodstain of one of the carjacking victims. The blood was found not to be Thompson’s. A prosecutor admitted to intentionally suppressing evidence. In 2002, he had a retrial based on deliberate government misconduct and was sent home in 2003. Unfortunately, in October 2017 he died of a heart attack.

Most of the people on death row are wrongfully convicted and serve time based on a crime they never committed, activists said. Since Thompson’s exoneration in 2003, five other men have had their innocence discovered.

“I was incarcerated during the time John was released and I remember hearing the news and being encouraged and motivated; I felt like John was a hero,” Morgan said. Not many people are released from death row and hearing the news of someone being released brought a sense of hope to Morgan. Morgan was wrongfully arrested at the age of 17 and sentenced to die in Angola for the rest of his natural life for the second-degree murder of Clarence Landry III.

After Morgan’s release he wrote a book with two other inmates titled, “Unbreakable Resolve,” and he is now working on another book, “Go to Jail: Confronting the System of Oppression,” which discusses his experiences in solitary confinement.

Residents who attended the public forum shared personal experiences fighting for loved ones caught up in the Criminal Justice System.

“Numerous members of my family have been slaughtered in the City of New Orleans; my spirit is broken. Our justice system is a big racist killer,” said Eloise Williams, a member of Mark Louis Williams and Victims of Homicide. “I haven’t been behind any bars, but I am incarcerated,” Williams added.

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