In the past eight years, three people have been executed in Louisiana. In those same eight years, seven prisoners have been set free from Death Row.
Neal Walker says that illustrates the massive failures of the state’s justice system, and that’s why those facing a capital trial need the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center (LCAC).
“Nobody wants to see an innocent person get executed,” Walker understates while explaining why he joined the LCAC after its inception 12 years ago. A former public defender in his home state of Kentucky, Walker brought his passion and expertise to Louisiana because he wanted to go “where the greatest need is—the Deep South.”
“The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is tragically uninterested in the unfairness that permeates the system,” says Walker, who now acts as director of the nonprofit LCAC, which is responsible for setting two of those seven prisoners free.
So when the problems that permeate that system—racism, inadequately trained and undercompensated public defenders, overzealous prosecutors and jurors prejudiced toward the death penalty—threaten a defendant, Walker and others at the LCAC step in, providing free and full legal counsel during trial and in the state court of appeals.
“For many clients, victory is avoiding the death penalty,” he explains. “But we always fight for the best possible decision for all clients.”
And Walker always deals with “what history drops in your lap”—which most recently has meant post-Katrina litigation. After the storm, Walker found himself, along with other members of the LCAC and the Louisiana law community, trying to help more than 7,000 prisoners languishing in legal limbo at the Orleans Parish Prison. The jail was home to prisoners who were awaiting trial or formal charges. Katrina threw the district attorney’s office and other judicial bodies into disarray, and those in Parish—including college students picked up on Bourbon Street, soccer moms who didn’t pay traffic tickets, and a man who was picked up for reading tarot cards without a permit—were forgotten. It took writing habeas corpus petitions for each person wrongfully held, but the group was eventually able to get hundreds of those people released.
“It was a disaster,” Walker says of the storm and its consequences. “But those were the people that most support groups wouldn’t think about. They were literally forgotten.”
With that project now behind them, Walker and the LCAC continue their death penalty fights. It is a daunting task, Walker says, considering that even the advances in technology that many people assume will aid those on trial for capital cases have their limitations. But the problems go way beyond the realm of technology.
“It is often forensic expert against forensic expert,” Walker says, adding that the poor often can’t afford those experts and tests anyway. So the LCAC continues to see cases in which shoddy fingerprint comparison or suppressed witness testimony lead to convictions that may not be overturned for a decade. Walker points back to the seven men who have been spared in the past eight years.
“Think what would happen if seven airplanes fell out of the air in eight years; millions would be spent on investigations and there would be a moratorium on flights,” he says. “The system needs to take responsibility.”