Tick Tock on the Death Row Clock: Urgent Plea to Governor Edwards to Act Now

As the days count down, a monumental decision hangs in the balance in Louisiana. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, with only two weeks left in his term, faces calls from anti-death penalty advocates to commute the sentences of the majority of prisoners on death row. A stark contrast to his potential Republican successor who intends to restart executions.

This desperate plea for commutation is not the prisoners’ first appeal to Governor Edwards. In June, following the governor’s public critique of capital punishment, 56 of the 60 prisoners on Louisiana’s death row petitioned the state Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole for clemency. However, these calls went unanswered as a legislative bill to abolish the death penalty failed to pass.

These prisoners are not asking for a get-out-of-jail-free card. They’re seeking the commutation of their death sentences to life imprisonment without parole, appealing to Edwards’ openly expressed opposition to the death penalty, rooted in his Catholic beliefs and concerns over the potential execution of innocent people.

A disturbing track record supports their fears: in the last quarter of a century, nine death row inmates in Louisiana were exonerated, as reported by The Guardian. What’s more, an alarming 80% of death penalty verdicts in the state have been overturned on appeal since 1999, when inmates gained the right to legal representation in the appeal process.

“Louisiana more often than not gets it wrong with the death penalty,” stated Samantha Kennedy, the executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), a New Orleans advocacy group rallying behind the prisoners’ demand.

Appallingly, this unjust system disproportionately impacts Black citizens: two-thirds of death row inmates in Louisiana are Black, despite Black people constituting only 33% of the state population.

Despite compelling evidence of systemic injustice, the pardons board declined to hear the 56 applications, citing an opinion from state Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who is campaigning to replace Edwards as governor. Landry claimed that only those whose appeals were ruled on within the last year could be considered for commutation—an interpretation that Kennedy contested as incorrect and disingenuous.

With about two weeks left to instruct the board to hold formal hearings, the pressure is on Edwards. The clock is ticking if the cases are to be reviewed before he departs office in January.

Should Landry clinch the governorship in the largely conservative state, he plans to reinstate state-sanctioned executions—practices that have been dormant for over a decade. Chillingly, he’s also considering methods such as firing squads and electric chairs as alternatives to lethal injections.

PJI has responded by launching a petition to implore Edwards to act on behalf of the prisoners. They argue that Governor Edwards can still make the choice for life over death, dignity over violence, and right over wrong.

“In refusing to consider these applications, the board has rescinded its own ability to use thoughtful, careful judgment to consider the worthiness of each human being,” the group stated. “It now rests on Gov. Edwards to instruct the board to set hearings for people on death row. Each person should have a chance to be considered for a life sentence.”

As Kennedy noted, commuting these sentences would set a precedent for the South and provide a much-needed push away from capital punishment in the U.S.

This historical clemency effort signifies more than individual lives. It represents a pivotal moment in the fight against capital punishment and its entrenched racial disparities. The world watches and waits, and the clock is ticking.