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Chelsea Thornton

For the second time in a week, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office has announced that it will not seek the death penalty in a high-profile murder case.

Prosecutors said Monday they are not seeking capital punishment for Chelsea Thornton, who is accused of killing her 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter inside their Gert Town home in 2012.

That decision came a few days after prosecutors said they will not seek to execute Travis Boys, who is accused of killing New Orleans Police Department Officer Daryle Holloway in 2015.

Observers say that prosecutors throughout the state are seeking capital punishment less often, even in the most heinous of cases.

“The district attorney believed that there were certain legal issues in the case that precluded the office from prosecuting it as a capital case,” said Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the office. He declined to elaborate.

Thornton, 28, was arrested hours after the children’s grandmother found them dead in a bathtub in the family’s dilapidated apartment in October 2012. The legal case has dragged on for years as a series of mental health experts argued over Thornton's sanity at the time of the killings.

Prosecutors on Monday turned over to Thornton’s lawyer a copy of one psychiatrist’s long-delayed report on her mental state. It found that she was competent at the time.

Defense attorney Lionel “Lon” Burns called that finding “ludicrous, considering her long history of mental illness.”

Trial in the case is set for Aug. 7.

The decision in Thornton’s case raises the question of whether prosecutors will ever seek a death penalty in New Orleans again as attitudes toward capital punishment continue to shift.

Cannizzaro has not disavowed the death penalty, according to Bowman.

“The district attorney evaluates each case on a case-by-case basis,” Bowman said, mentioning the extra resources required to obtain a death penalty verdict and then to defend it on appeal. 

Bowman also pointed out that "there's no means for carrying out a capital verdict at this point,” referring to the fact that Louisiana prison authorities have run out of lethal injection drugs.

Statewide, fewer prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. No inmate has been executed in the state since a prisoner waived his right to appeal in 2010. 

Burns believes Cannizzaro has calculated an Orleans Parish jury simply will not sentence someone to death. Nick Trenticosta, a local defense attorney and death penalty opponent, agreed.

“The statistics tell a story that, it looks to me, might be informing the prosecutors’ decision, which is one death sentence in 19 years, and that sentence was reversed on a motion for a new trial. So New Orleans juries are life-giving people,” Trenticosta said.

With the subtraction of Boys and Thornton, there are four death penalty-eligible cases remaining in New Orleans, according to Trenticosta.

The only death penalty handed down since Cannizzaro took office in 2008 was for Michael "MikeMike" Anderson for a quintuple murder in Central City in 2006. His conviction and sentence were later overturned. He ultimately pleaded guilty to five counts of manslaughter, which is not punishable by death.

Federal authorities added another wrinkle to the case in 2016 when they said that notorious crime boss Telly Hankton, not Anderson, committed the five killings.

“What we are witnessing is prosecutors throughout the state are thinking twice about taking a case to trial for the death penalty,” Trenticosta said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432