Angola Death Row

Death Row Angola Prison has a new Death Row with state of the art equipment and security system at Angola Prison in Angola, La. on March 3, 2009. View from the side of the front gate at Louisiana State Penitentiary AKA Angola Prison.

Mark Saltz

The death penalty lives on in Louisiana.

On Wednesday, a House criminal justice committee narrowly defeated House Bill 101, by New Iberia Democrat Rep. Terry Landry, to abolish capital punishment.

The vote failed 8-9, losing by a single vote. The co-sponsor on the measure, Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, raised eyebrows when he cast a critical vote to kill his own legislation. 

On the Senate side, Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor, a Republican, proposed a near mirror image of the bill that had already gotten out of committee and was set for a vote in the full Senate, where he said he likely had enough support to move it through. But after the panel rejected the House bill, Claitor said he would not pursue the difficult vote. His bill, if successful in the Senate, would eventually have gone before the same House committee that rejected Landry's bill.

"Why would I push the bill when the same one just died in committee?" he said. "The bill is dead."

Claitor, who helped present Landry's bill in a show of bi-partisanship on Wednesday, has been a vocal advocate around the State Capitol for abolishing the death penalty, citing his own Catholic faith and a concern about the staggering costs of the ineffective program.

Supporters of ending the death penalty noted that it's an expensive program to run, costing the state $91 million in defense costs for appeals since 2008. However, the state isn't even executing people anymore. Since 2002, only one person has been executed – Gerald Bordelon in 2010 and he volunteered. The state says it no longer has access to the drugs used for lethal injections.

Claitor said it costs the state $68 dollars a day for a death row inmate, compared to about $28 dollars a day for an inmate in a parish prison. "In every case it is cheaper to incarcerate them than to kill them," Claitor said.

Since 1983, the state has executed 28 people, though 242 people have been sentenced to death. Most of those sentences were overturned, and 11 death row inmates have been exonerated. Today, 74 people are on death row, who would have been unaffected by the legislation that only applied to new crimes committed after August 1.

Many death penalty opponents took issue with the fact that Louisiana and other states across the country have a history of sentencing innocent people to die.

Ray Krone, the 100th death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated, said when he was wrongfully accused of murder he had no criminal record and had been honorably discharged from military service. He was found guilty largely because of bite marks that an expert claimed matched his teeth. And when it was time to be sentenced and jurors looked to him for remorse, Krone said he was unable to feign remorse for a crime he did not commit.

"Don't ever think we who are against the death penalty are against victims," said Krone, who spent 10 years in prison. "Because we feel victimized in a lot of ways."

It was a difficult vote for many on the committee. Rep. John Bagneris, D-New Orleans, who ultimately voted for the bill, said he was struggling because he could empathize with a victims' family who wanted to see their killer put to death. He noted that the Bible says that you take "an eye for an eye."

"And if you kill mine, I will walk to Angola after I get you," he said.

Proponents of the death penalty argued that it's a necessary tool for law enforcement and a fitting punishment for the cruelest criminals.

"Our system is designed to keep people from seeking their own retribution," said Hugo Holland Jr., special assistant district attorney in North Louisiana. "For some people life in prison just doesn't do it."

The bill was opposed by the District Attorneys Association and the state chiefs of police.

Albany Rep. Sherman Mack, a Republican who chairs the committee, said he was evolving on the issue, but ultimately would not favor taking any discretionary tools away from district attorneys.

One of the staunchest opponents of the bill ended up being Pylant, who co-sponsored the bill.

Landry said had no idea Pylant was planning to oppose his own bill, until minutes before the vote when he spoke in favor of the death penalty.

"He co-authored the bill, I just think that it's not the way I would conduct business with a colleague," Landry said. "I'd give them the decency of saying I can't support it."

Pylant said after the vote that he's always been for the death penalty, and he never actually supported the bill despite being named as a co-sponsor. He rejected the notion that he'd "flipped" his vote, saying he's never expressed anything but support of capital punishment, but he wanted to draw attention to his concerns that the state isn't fulfilling its obligation in actually executing death row inmates.

However, on April 25, Pylant and Landry attended a Senate committee and helped Claitor close on his own bill to eliminate the death penalty.

"You might find it odd you'd see my name as co-author on a bill to abolish the death penalty, when in fact I support the death penalty," Pylant said to the Senate committee last month.

"I just think that in the times we live in, the tight times, if we're not going to do it then we don't need to be spending that kind of money," he said.

HB101 failed with a nearly party line vote.

Those voting in favor of abolishing the death penalty were: Reps. Landry; Bagneris; Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge; Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace; Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna and John Stefanski, R-Crowley.

Those who voted to retain the death penalty were: Chairman Mack; Reps. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City; Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles; Chris Hazel, R-Pineville; Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Frank Howard, R-Many; Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport and Pylant.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.