Louisiana Supreme Court weighs in on same-sex marriage ruling with pointed opinions _lowres

Judge Scott Crichton

If you abolish the death penalty, how are you going to punish a lifer who commits another murder in prison?

That is one question opponents of capital punishment struggle to answer. The prospect of a second life sentence can have little, if any, deterrent effect. It is possible that a double murderer will have even less chance of a pardon in the distant future, but such calculations will never stay a killer's hand in the heat of the moment.

Prosecutors have frequently pointed out that nothing but a death sentence would make any difference to the five lifers who murdered Angola guard David Knapps during an escape attempt in 1999. Juries sentenced only two of the so-called Angola Five to death, however, and whether Jeffrey Clarke or David Brown will ever see his execution day is an open question.

The next chapter in the saga will come when the state Supreme Court rules on Brown's appeal, which it will have to do without the benefit of Justice Scott Crichton's counsel. Crichton has recused himself after making an astounding error when he appeared on a radio show in his native Shreveport.

Crichton, having reminded his interviewer that he was not at liberty to discuss any pending case, proceeded to do just that by noting that the Angola Five wouldn't have been around to kill Knapps if they had been sentenced to death for the murders of which they had already been convicted.

Crichton has long been an outspoken proponent of capital punishment, and lobbied against bills that sought to abolish it last year. But defendants whose lives are at stake are especially entitled to an open mind on the bench, and Crichton left the clear impression that his was made up. Brown's attorneys sought his recusal, but Crichton relieved his colleagues of any embarrassment by stepping aside voluntarily. This was such blatant violation of the judicial code that it would have been a travesty for him to remain on the case.

Not that Brown can expect much sympathy from the rest of the court, for he has already drawn a blank here. In 2014 ad-hoc district judge Jerome Winsberg upheld Brown's conviction but threw out his death sentence because prosecutors had been up to their old tricks. The withheld evidence, on this occasion was a statement from another inmate that Barry Edge had said he and Clarke were the ones who beat Knapps to death.

While that did not exonerate the other three making the escape attempt, Winsberg ruled that it was quite possible that the jury would not have given Brown death had they known about the statement. Edge, by then, had been given life, and Winsberg's ruling was clearly correct. But he was overruled by an appeal court, and the Supreme Court agreed.

Prosecuting the “Angola Five” had cost taxpayers an estimated $14 million by 2015, and it will be a few more years before attorneys are done with their writs, memoranda and whatever. It's never safe to assume that a death row inmate will live long enough to be executed. They all spend decades in the shadow of death.

So while it true, as Crichton said on the radio, that a second life sentence is pointless for a convicted murderer, the same is true of a death sentence if it isn't carried out. Crichton, in court rulings, has also expressed some sympathy for the argument that what must seem like an eternity on death row amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. His suggested remedy it to streamline the system.

Such views hardly come as a surprise, given Crichton's background. Before his elevation to the Supreme Court in 2015, he was a judge in Shreveport for 24 years and a prosecutor before that. Perhaps because of his familiarity with the criminal element, his comments betray a distinct relish for capital punishment, He has obviously given it a great deal of thought, and told his interviewer that the condemned should be given a choice of lethal drugs, with the firing squad as another option.

Whether a more efficient execution system would deter future lifers from further homicides is, however, impossible to say. All we know for sure is that the possibility of a death sentence for his assailants did not spare the life of the unfortunate Capt. Knapps.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.