Landry: The trouble with woke DAs & post-conviction plea deals

Published 12:45 am Thursday, September 14, 2023

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Imagine the unthinkable: your loved one is killed in a horrible crime. Upon notification, you experience a surge of grief, shock, anger, and disbelief; then you are plunged into Louisiana’s criminal justice system. After an investigation, the arrest is made; then a grand jury indicts the perpetrator with one count of second-degree murder. The killer pleads “not guilty.”

After months or even years of trial preparation, you’re in court for several days – experiencing those same raw feelings all over again as lawyers on both sides make their arguments to the jury. The facts of the case stick to you like glue; and by the end of the trial, you feel tarred and feathered with emotions, regrets, and what ifs. After a short period of time, the jury comes back with a unanimous verdict of guilty.

A few weeks later, the man who ended your loved one’s life and destroyed your own is sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence. The appeals process proceeds, during which the killer is defeated again, and again, and again. Slowly, you find yourself able to relax a little more, let go of some anger, and eventually find a sense of calm. And as the decades roll by, you find comfort in justice being served and the saga being over.

But then — suddenly — over 20 years later, the District Attorney surprises everyone by granting a post-conviction plea deal. This backroom deal eliminates the unanimous verdict for second-degree murder, instead free-passing a lesser charge of manslaughter. Gone is the sentence of life imprisonment; now it is simply 35 years with credit for time served. The murderer you thought would never see the free world again could now be standing behind you in the checkout line at your local grocery store.

Unfortunately, this is no longer a hypothetical situation; and for too many, this is a fearful reality because of La. C.Cr.P. Article 930:10. In 2021, the Louisiana Legislature unanimously passed SB 186 and John Bel Edwards signed it into law as Act 104. While proponents claimed it would “enhance the judiciary’s authority” and “conserve judicial economy,” the truth is it enables district attorneys to serve as kings over their fiefdoms – issuing pardons to anyone at all, without any limitations or constraints.

Naturally, no one wants innocent individuals to rot in jail. That is why our appeals process exists: to give defendants the opportunity to prove their factual innocence. However, once a verdict has been finalized, there are no more ‘get out of jail free’ cards…until Act 104. And while most DAs are honorable and only a few have ever used this statute, Jason Williams in New Orleans has made it a method for emptying jails and releasing offenders back into the streets. He has granted pardons left and right to rapists and murderers, further feeding chaos in one of the most dangerous cities in America.

These woke, hug-a-thug policies have very real consequences. After Williams released convicted killer Henry Talley through a post-conviction plea deal, Talley was arrested for fatally shooting 28-year-old mother and nursing assistant Asia Davis. Ms. Davis was pelted with bullets and left to bleed out in front of her apartment complex in the middle of a service road and in clear view of passing traffic. For the victims of the original crimes and the victims of any future crimes perpetrated by offenders like Talley, my office and I are pushing back to end this madness.

Pardons, acts of mercy, and the power of clemency have belonged to the governor since 1804. Even then, reprieves are only granted to those who receive a “favorable recommendation of the Board of Pardons.” To grant a district attorney unfettered power to pardon any defendant by tossing out a final “conviction, sentence, or habitual offender status” without proving factual innocence is not only unconstitutional but also insulting to the victims and their families.

That is why I challenged the statute in court allowing for post-conviction plea agreements; and last week, we delivered a win for victims and their families. The judicial branch should never have been granted this level of power; and on Friday, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed. The court upheld the rule of law and stopped this unconstitutional pathway to freedom for some of our State’s worst offenders.

The measure of our success will never be how many violent offenders we let out of jail; rather, it will be how we keep people from going to jail. As I have said many times before: when good people do bad things, they deserve a second chance; but when bad people do bad things, they should be put away for a long time. Fortunately, the Supreme Court made that possible by removing this unconstitutional path to injustice.