In the waning weeks of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration, a convicted killer makes a live teleconference appearance before the state Pardon Board at a local courthouse.
John David Floyd, 58, has served 26 years of a life sentence. A model prisoner at the maximum security-prison at Angola, Floyd also has won acclaim for his volunteer work after Hurricane Katrina.
Floyd is asking the governor’s five political appointees to the Pardon Board to recommend that Blanco reduce his sentence to 60 years in prison – making him eligible for parole – before she leaves office Jan. 14.
Board approval for a “time cut” (inmate parlance) is rare for any of Louisiana’s 36,000 incarcerated felons, let alone a convicted murderer.
Floyd is apparently an uncommon convict.
So many people have driven up from New Orleans to express support for the aging inmate that the Pardon Board stops his hearing. The courtroom is overcrowded. Floyd supporters are spilling out into the marble corridor.
“We have a fire marshall issue!” a state employee announces. Several college-age supporters of the inmate volunteer to leave and the hearing resumes.
The Pardon Board then turns toward a flat television screen, mounted on a wall of the courtroom.
The new technology clearly addresses security concerns and transportation costs. Video-conferencing is widely used for bail bond hearings and other mundane criminal proceedings. However, there’s something Orwellian about using the technology for pardon board hearings, which focus on evaluating claims of human redemption.
Someone announces the pardon hearing will soon be hooked up with Angola.
Soon the image of a graying inmate appears on the courtroom screen.“My name is John David Floyd,” he says.
A native of rural Mississippi, Floyd is a seventh grade dropout who left home at age 16.
Floyd is convicted of the Nov. 26, 1980, stabbing death of William Hines in New Orleans.
“I apologize to the Hines family and for what they’ve had to go through,” Floyd says.
As a trusty, Floyd now works in the “dog pen,” a highly restricted area at Angola.
Rev. James Comeaux, a former chaplain at Angola, recalls: “I witnessed his compassion for animals … attack dogs, drug dogs and horses.” And Floyd once nursed a lost fawn back to health and returned it to the woods, Comeaux adds in a letter to the board.
Floyd also was one of eight Angola trustys to help law enforcement during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman praised Floyd for helping to build a temporary jail after the storm and for other volunteer projects in the city over the last two years.
“Mr. Floyd has been a hardworking, dependable and trustworthy prisoner,” Gusman wrote in a recent letter to Pardon Board Chair Ronald D. Cox. “I respectfully urge you to … commute his sentence of life without parole.”
It’s a rare letter for a prison inmate from an elected official. “It’s a very rare thing, but [Katrina] was a rare time and he’s kind of a special person,” Gusman says later. He adds: “My interaction with him really showed me that this is a guy who could contribute to society.”
At Pardon Board hearings, comments are scrawled on red cards [for opponents] and green cards [for supporters].
Pardon Board Chair Cox reads aloud from several green cards, praising Floyd’s Katrina work.
Cox then says the board must decide whether Floyd has been “sufficiently rehabilitated considering the nature of the offense.”
A prosecutor from the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office says he was unable to find a record of the murder victim. Retired sentencing Judge Jerome Winsberg did not oppose – or support – clemency.
Julia Sims, a 12-year veteran of the board, who was nominated by a victims’ rights group, cites opposition to Floyd in a letter she received from an unnamed friend of the victim. By law, the letter is not public record.
“There is victim opposition and law enforcement opposition … so I have to vote to oppose,” Sims says. Vice Chair Larry Clark and Ted Migues also vote for denial.
Board chair Cox and Clement LaFleur, the only black on the board, both praise Floyd’s good conduct and “improvement.” The inmate loses, 3-2.
In fact, the vote is not even close.
By law, pardon board applicants require at least a 4-1 majority for a time cut.
“Thank you all for coming,” Cox tells Floyd’s stunned supporters. “Drive carefully back to New Orleans.”
By law, Floyd will have to wait another five years before seeking reconsideration.
Warden Cain, a tough, deeply religious man who has presided over inmate executions, expresses disappointment. “Floyd is one of the inmates who I don’t think would hurt anyone again,” Cain says. “He is totally rehabilitated. Floyd provided a great service to the community and the public.”
But, he adds, “We can’t ever forget the victims of violent crime. Floyd is not the same man he was 20 years ago but he ‘hurt’ the victim’s family and loved ones.”
“And no one should be released from prison if someone else has to be afraid of them – this is America,” the warden said.
Generally, Cain says he and other corrections officials need to do more work on victim/inmate reconciliation – but only if the victim or the victim’s family wants such contact. “We haven’t done that well in that area in the past but we’re doing better now. It’s our fault for not trying to get them together in the past.”
Floyd’s lawyer John Adcock says state law prohibits release of the letter from Floyd’s lone opponent or identification of the author. “If the board allowed the name of such a witness, it would facilitate reconciliation between victims and prisoners in these cases,” Adcock says.
Meanwhile, of the 5,108 inmates at Angola, 3,746 are serving life sentences, including 82 Death Row inmates. “We have 1,329 inmates who are over 50,” says Angola spokesperson Angle Norwood. Most are locked up for murder or rape, but not all. Some are still serving life for heroin charges.
“Prisons should be a place for predators and not dying old men,” Cain says.
David Kent, first vice president of Victims & Citizens Against Crime and former assistant superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department [1978-’82], agrees: “Once [criminals] are in their 50s and 60s, they are not nearly as predatory as they once were.” If inmates can receive elderly care outside of prison, there should be a mechanism for considering their release.
Meanwhile, Cain says, corrections officials must do a better job so Pardon Board and parole board officials will have more confidence in returning inmates to society.
Men like John Floyd.