If Steve Pylant can change his lifelong views and come out against the death penalty, you have to figure its days are numbered. The latest opinion polls show a solid majority against it.
Pylant is a Republican state representative from Winnsboro and former sheriff of Franklin Parish. No, he has not suddenly metamporphosed into a wishy-washy, pinko bleeding heart. He is as hard-headed as ever. The reasons for his change of heart are purely pragmatic and financial.
He up and declared that the time has come to abandon capital punishment in the middle of a committee hearing that demonstrated conclusively there are no rational grounds for thinking otherwise. That was not the intention; the committee was debating a bill to revamp the state Public Defender Board, purportedly to make better use of the limited funds available.
Right now, the state board spends $10 million a year on capital defense, disbursing the rest of its budget, about $23 million, for local indigent defender boards to handle lesser cases. Many of those local offices are so strapped that they are laying off staff and refusing assignments. This makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional obligation to provide effective counsel for defendants who can’t afford their own mouthpiece.
It does not, therefore, make a lot of sense to spend so much on capital cases, especially when convictions are routinely overturned. And appellate proceedings drag on so long that the condemned do not find their life expectancy much affected, anyway.
Since 2000, Louisiana has carried out three executions — the last of them in 2010, when the condemned man declined to pursue an appeal. Our reluctance to dispatch death-row inmates is just as well, given how many innocent men have been released from there.
On the rare occasions when we do manage to strap a condemned man to the gurney, the state is already out a fortune in defense, prosecution, security and court costs. How many millions we pay per convict dispatched will, no doubt, become clearer when a Capital Costs Commission, appointed by the Legislature, completes its work. Because another legislative commission on indigent defense costs has yet to submit its report, this is the dumbest time imaginable to file a bill to reform the state board. It cleared committee, nevertheless.
The bill is not only premature but futile. It does not address the underlying problem, which is that the state lacks the money to meet its indigent defense obligations. At most, the bill will shift a few bucks around.
It is supposed to make life easier for the local indigent defense boards, but its most vocal proponent at the hearing was a prosecutor, and not just any prosecutor. Urging its passage was Mr. Death Penalty himself, Hugo Holland.
Nobody can be more frustrated with the paucity of executions than Holland, who has devoted the past 30 years to capital cases. An assistant district attorney in Calcasieu Parish, Holland is such an accomplished advocate of death that he also frequently gets hired to prosecute accused murderers in other jurisdictions. That Holland is for this bill can only mean he believes it will help him in his grisly life’s work.
Right now, Holland told the committee, the state board is dominated by “anti-death penalty zealots,” who pay “five boutique law firms” $1 million a year to defend accused murders and file “vexatious” motions designed merely to gum up the works.
The bill would address those alleged problems by downsizing the state board from 15 to 11 members and removing all law professors from it. Instead, five of its members would be appointed from a list drawn up by the local boards, which goes against the conventional wisdom that holds regulators should be independent of the regulated. As for those fancy-pants lawyers, they would no longer have the inside track for indigent defense contracts because the state board would put them out on bid.
The rationale is that this would give local defender boards more money to handle bread-and-butter cases, but by the time the bill had been amended, that argument no longer held water. The revised bill requires the state board to pass 65 percent of its budget over to the locals, which is just about what is happening right now.
Contract lawyers, the committee was told, make only about $84 an hour from capital cases, so there may not be much scope for saving money whoever gets that work.
Indigent defense urgently needs a fix, but this bill is not it. Part of the solution is obvious. Just ask Pylant.
James Gill’s email address is jgill@ theadvocate.com.