Giving Compass' Take:
- Cary Aspinwall, Lea Skene, and Ilica Mahajan explain how Louisiana's broad definition of second-degree murder has led to one of the highest life-without-parole incarceration rates in the U.S.
- What role can you play in criminal justice reform? What problems are you ready to address?
- Learn why legal defense hasnt kept up with the rise in life-without-parole sentences.
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The night before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Tiffany Woods and Emmanuel Scott fled the city, driving 320 miles northwest with their four small children.
The youngest was two months old: Little Emmanuel. A New Orleans hospital discharged the premature infant about three weeks before Katrina struck. He had tested positive at birth for a genetic abnormality, but crucial follow-up testing hadn’t happened before the hurricane hit.
The family stayed in a shelter here, feeding the baby formula they bought with government vouchers.
Baby Emmanuel was extremely sleepy and had trouble feeding, according to both hospital records and his young parents. In October, they ran out of formula vouchers, so they bought organic cow’s milk for the baby instead, they later told police, hoping he might tolerate it better.
Within weeks, Emmanuel died of malnutrition, according to an autopsy.
Prosecutors decided his death was murder in the second degree — which doesn’t require proof that anyone intended to harm him.
A judge found the baby’s parents guilty, and in 2008 sentenced them to spend the rest of their lives in prison, with no hope of parole. Scott was 18 years old when Emmanuel died; Woods was 25.
Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at one of the highest rates in the nation, data shows. Nearly 4,200 men and women are serving lifetime sentences in the state, for crimes that range from homicide and rape to rarer cases of repeat purse snatchings and child neglect, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate found.
Second-degree murder charges, like the ones Woods and Scott were found guilty of, are a big driver of life-without-parole sentences. The state has long had the highest homicide rate in the nation. But Louisiana law contains an unusually sweeping definition of second-degree murder that includes even some accidental deaths, legal experts say. And despite the wide variations in circumstances that can produce a second-degree murder conviction — from a premeditated ambush to a getaway car accident — the sentence is the same: mandatory life without parole. Judges have almost no discretion.
Read the full article about life-without-parole in Louisiana by Cary Aspinwall, Lea Skene, and Ilica Mahajan at The Marshall Project.