Louisiana's use of the death penalty has reached record lows in recent years amid ongoing debate — both statewide and across the country — about the potential for grave and irreversible errors when allowing state executions.
The downward trend is reflected nationwide as death sentences peaked in the 1990s and have dropped steadily since then. Some states have abolished capital punishment entirely while others still have the option but use it less often, according to a report released earlier this month from the national nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
Louisiana is one of 31 states where the practice is permitted. But state leaders have long grappled with questions surrounding its use.
Discussions have grown more heated in recent months since a federal court order was issued prohibiting additional executions in Louisiana until at least summer 2019 — a moratorium resulting from issues obtaining lethal injection drugs because pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to sell them for that purpose.
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One person was sentenced to death in Louisiana in 2018 following no death sentences in both 2016 and 2017, according to the report. The state's last execution took place in 2010 though dozens of people remain on death row awaiting execution.
"In a lot of respects Louisiana mirrors what's going on around the country," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Americans are much less supportive of the death penalty than they were a generation ago. There has been a sea change in public opinion."
Dunham described a "deep and broad decline" in death sentences even in conservative states where the practice has historically received the most support.
There were 42 death sentences imposed nationwide in 2018, which marks an 85 percent decline since the mid 1990s — when annual totals reached more than 300, according to the report. Executions have also dropped significantly: 25 people were executed in the United States this year, down from 98 in 1999.
Dunham said one of the reasons for the decline is that people are realizing wrongful convictions are real. And can result in innocent people being sentenced to death.
He said Louisiana has the highest exoneration rate of death row prisoners since 1900 — meaning "more people per capita than any other state this century, which raises serious questions about the death sentences that are imposed." Eleven people have been exonerated after receiving death sentences in Louisiana and "every single one of those cases involved either police or prosecutorial misconduct," Dunham said.
Opponents also argue that the practice disproportionately affects defendants in certain communities where prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence. Research shows that more than half of all death sentences have come from fewer 2 percent of counties in the United States. Dunham said Louisiana is no different, with death sentences concentrated in both East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes.
The one Louisiana resident sentenced to death this year was David Brown of Lafourche Parish — that parish's first death sentence in four decades. He was convicted in the 2012 stabbing deaths of a woman and her two young daughters, according to reports from the Daily Comet. The jury found that Brown also sexually assaulted two of the victims and set their home on fire during the attack. Jurors voted in 2016 that Brown should receive capital punishment but he wasn't sentenced until June 2018 because of delays to the case, including a request for retrial that was denied.
State legislators have consistently rejected proposals to abolish capital punishment in recent years as some advocates argue it's valuable for victims' families searching for justice. Measures have gained traction but ultimately been defeated, often along party lines. And the issue could remain on the table for at least the next few years.
A spat between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state's Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry this summer turned the spotlight on the politics of capital punishment in Louisiana. Landry argued the challenges associated with obtaining lethal injection drugs could be eliminated if the state started allowing other methods of execution — including hanging, firing squads and the electric chair. His proposal came after the Edwards administration requested and obtained the federal court order prohibiting executions until next year.
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The attorney general seized onto Edwards' reluctance to reveal his personal views on the death penalty, asserting the governor was dragging his feet in enforcing state law. Landry pointed to other states that have found ways to access the drugs and execute prisoners. And he said continued delays prevent families from getting justice for horrific crimes.
Opposition from the Catholic Church could also affect public opinion as Louisiana residents continue to ponder questions about capital punishment, Dunham said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops have called for an end to the death penalty and Pope Francis changed the Catechism earlier this year to declare the practice unacceptable in all cases.
Catholic activists like Sister Helen Prejean — who grew up in Baton Rouge and graduated from St. Joseph's Academy in 1957 — have also been spreading that message for decades.
"Where is the dignity in rendering a human being completely defenseless and taking them out and killing them," she said, speaking to St. Joseph's students at a school event earlier this year. "Where is the dignity in that?"
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