Louisiana has struggled for more than a decade over the death penalty – and a few more years could pass before the Legislature addresses the issue again.
The inability to carry out capital punishment, coupled with the costs associated with it have left some lawmakers questioning whether capital punishment is effective in deterring violent crime – or worth the bang for the buck.
At the same time efforts to make executions easier, including changing the mode of death, have been as unsuccessful as the more frequent movements to abolish capital punishment.
“I just don’t see a widespread appetite for abolishing the death penalty at this time,” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. Additionally, he said getting rid of the death penalty would lead to more efforts to eliminate life without parole sentences.
“The Republican part of me says ‘Why are we engaged in a program that clearly doesn’t work’,” said Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor, who has sponsored legislation to do away with capital punishment.
“I see Louisiana as engaged with the idea and less with the reality,” he added.
Eight years have passed since Louisiana put someone to death.
In 2010, Gerald Bordelon – who killed his 12-year-old stepdaughter – waived his appeal and volunteered to be executed. The last execution of a convicted murderer who didn’t volunteer was 16 years ago in May 2002.
Currently, 70 individuals are on death row, but they may never be put to death because Louisiana no longer has access to the pentobarbital or the alternative combination of midazolam and hydromorphone used in lethal injections.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the alternative drug combination wasn’t “cruel and unusual.” But the pharmacies that manufacture the drugs won’t sell them for capital punishment.
Additionally, 11 defendants are awaiting trials for capital offenses as the state struggles with the cost of providing their legally required defense team, which consists of a lead counsel, an associate counsel, a fact investigator and a mitigation expert.
Over the past two years, legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty have gained traction but have been unsuccessful.
After battling legislation this past session to place the 10-2 verdict rule on the fall ballot and require a unanimous jury to convict criminals, taking on capital punishment was, perhaps, too much political pressure, said Democratic New Orleans Sen. JP Morrell, a former public defender who sponsored the bills to do both.
And next year is an election year for many legislators, meaning lawmakers will default to the “status quo,” leaving little room for any seismic shift in government, he said.
Even if he was faced with the possibility of putting someone to death who killed someone he loves, he wouldn’t change his stance because life in prison is harsh enough, Morrell said.
“I’m very aware of what the criminal justice system is like — I know being in prison for the rest of your life is hell,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel like if someone were convicted to life in prison that that person would be ‘getting off’ with that.”
Rep. Terry Landry, a Democrat from New Iberia, has advocated abolishing the death penalty in both the 2017 and 2018 regular sessions.
His attempt in 2017 included an amendment to bring the issue to voters on a ballot but lost by one vote in the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice. A similar measure by Claitor cleared the Senate but was sidetracked after Landry’s bill was defeated.
Landry tried again in 2018, but his bill failed after 10 Republican committee members voted against the seven Democrats and one Independent for the bill.
Morrell, whose own measure cleared a Senate committee, decided not the bring it up for a vote on the Senate floor after Landry’s effort was defeated.
Before entering the House in 2012, Landry was the head of the Louisiana State Police and was involved in the investigation of Derrick Todd Lee, a convicted murderer sentenced to death after being linked to the deaths of seven women in south Louisiana. Awaiting execution, Lee died in early 2016 from heart disease.
Though he believes all evidence points to Lee’s guilt, Landry said he still wouldn’t carry out the punishment today. But he can’t say the same if it was someone close to him.
Landry’s “spiritual and religious convictions” and the expensive cost of capital punishment serves as his reasons to continue efforts to abolish the practice.
“Our teachings say if you’re going to be pro-life, you’ve got to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb,” he said. “You can’t be against abortion and be for the death penalty.”
One of the difficult issues to address when discussing the death penalty is the emotional impact the victims’ families endure and whether a life for a life is justified. Claitor says people are frequently wrong in their assumptions about what the victims’ families do and don’t want because families have a tremendous capacity to forgive and heal without putting someone to death.
Once offenders receive a death sentence, they can pursue automatic appeals to both the state and federal courts. Jay Dixon, a public defender on the Louisiana Public Defender Board, said the process after conviction includes an evaluation of whether the court and jury got the verdict right or made an error in the ruling, if the prosecution cheated or hid evidence and if there was ineffective assistance to counsel defendants.
“It is a lengthy process and thank goodness we have it because Louisiana would have definitely executed innocent men,” he said.
Over $100 million has been used just on public defender funds since the board was formed in 2007, he said, and those costs don’t include prosecutors’ spending, court spending, hotels for jurors for two weeks, police costs or lab costs for capital punishment cases.
Additionally, Dixon said districts receive 65 percent of the board’s funding, resulting in improved districts, but problems for the board to provide teams on capital punishment cases.
The state Department of Corrections cited no significant cost difference between housing death row inmates and other offenders.
Under current law, Louisiana allows the death penalty for those convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree cases of rape when the victim is younger than 13 years old, as well as the crime of treason.
Though the current law includes first-degree rape of children, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2008 5-4 decision found that Louisiana's law violated 8th Amendment protections against "cruel and unusual punishments." It’s one of several laws found unconstitutional by the high court that the Louisiana Legislature won’t change.
Eleven people have been freed from death row in Louisiana, including Corey Williams, an intellectually disabled man who spent 20 years behind bars after being arrested at 16 years old for the murder of a pizza deliveryman. Williams was freed on May 22 after pleading guilty to the lesser charges of manslaughter and obstruction of justice.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that intellectually disabled defendants could not be executed.
• Louisiana has executed 28 people, began lethal injections in 1993, electrocution until 1991
• Texas has executed 516 people, all with lethal injections
• Oklahoma has executed 111 people since 1990, all with lethal injections
• Alabama has executed 56 people, all with electrocution until December 2002, when they began using lethal injection
• Arkansas has executed 27 people, all with lethal injection except for a June 1990 execution using the electric chair
• Mississippi has executed 21 people, used gas chamber until 1989, then lethal injection in 2002