In their ongoing bickering over the death penalty, Louisiana’s Republican attorney general Tuesday asked the Democratic governor to support bringing back hanging, firing squads and the electric chair.
After the back and forth over capital punishment last week between the two possible rivals in next year's gubernatorial race, Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a letter Tuesday saying Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statements on why Louisiana hasn’t moved forward on executing convicted murderers are “both intentionally misleading and cold comfort to victims’ families.”
The spat between Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry over Louisiana's long-stalled use of capital punishment continued to p…
Landry again demanded Edwards say where he personally stood on the death penalty. Then Landry proposed legislation that would change the state's capital punishment law to allow for different forms of execution other than just lethal injection. He recommended the Legislature pass a law that would allow the state Department of Corrections to choose between hanging, firing squads, and electrocution to put condemned criminals to death if other methods are unavailable.
He asked for Edwards' support.
"Mr. Landry is accurate in that new legislation must be proposed to solve the death penalty issue. However, in the past three legislative sessions Mr. Landry’s office has not presented any legislation to help alleviate this roadblock, until now," Department of Corrections Secretary James M. LeBlanc said.
Only a legislator can submit a bill for consideration of becoming law. The next legislative session is scheduled to begin April 8.
Letter by Attorney General Jeff Landry to Gov. John Bel Edwards on the death penalty
Edwards has consistently ducked stating his personal view on capital punishment, saying instead that he has sworn to uphold state and federal laws.
“But I am not going to pretend that we have the ability to do something we don’t have. It’s not about scoring political points. It’s about being realistic in the way we govern,” Edwards told reporters Monday, the day before Landry’s letter was released publicly.
In answering questions during a highway project groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, Edwards said he specifically did not favor hangings or firing squads. "I am not inclined to go back to methods that have been discarded (when) popular sentiment turned against methods that were deemed to be barbaric and so forth. We have a law in place we will continue to try to search for solutions around that law," which allows execution by lethal injection, the governor said.
After Landry’s letter was released to a television station Tuesday, the governor’s spokesman, Richard Carbo, said in a prepared statement: “We are pleased that he has conceded that current law, not the governor, is standing in the way of the state resuming executions, which have been on hold since 2010. Quitting the very lawsuit that was meant to bring justice for these families was never the answer, so his commitment to re-engage is welcome news.”
Carbo said the governor’s office had not received Landry’s letter by midday Tuesday.
Carbo continued, "In the 211 days the legislature has been in regular session since 2016, the attorney general has not offered a single bill. We will review his suggestions and hope to re-start a constructive dialogue. In the future, it is our hope that we can handle process disagreements person-to-person rather than through the media.”
Louisiana law allows executions only by lethal injection. But pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell the necessary drugs to the state. The Edwards administration obtained a year-long extension of a court order that prohibits the state from carrying out executions because of hurdles to legally obtaining the drugs.
Louisiana last executed an inmate, who volunteered to be put to death, in 2010. Before that the last person executed was in 2002 during Gov. Mike Foster’s administration.
Seventy-two inmates are on death row at the Angola penitentiary awaiting execution.
“You make the unremarkable observation that other methods of execution ‘are not allowed by Louisiana law.’ While this is true you avoid the simple truth that the law can be changed," Landry wrote Edwards. "I would be heartened – as would crime victims’ families – by working together to support legislation that finds a means to end this impasse.”
Landry would change the law to say that if lethal injection is unavailable then the method would be nitrogen hypoxia. That mode basically fills an air tight mask on the condemned with nitrogen gas, thereby causing death by a lack of oxygen. Oklahoma legislators have looked at that method of execution as a way around the inability to purchase the drugs needed for lethal injections.
If nitrogen hypoxia is found unconstitutional or becomes otherwise unavailable, then Corrections Department secretary could choose between hanging, firing squad or electrocution, under Landry’s proposal.
“But again, I ask: where do you stand? If you truly stand with crime victims and their families, then you will affirm your support with action,” Landry wrote Edwards.
Edwards has repeatedly said his Roman Catholic faith has guided him to oppose abortion. He won't say how he personally views capital punishment.
The church also opposes the death penalty. Landry is Catholic and opposes abortion.
Pope John Paul II in 1999 called “for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” Pope Francis reaffirmed church opposition to capital punishment in 2015 saying, “Human justice is imperfect, and the failure to recognize its fallibility can transform it into a source of injustice.”
Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops opinion on death penalty April 18, 2017
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops also have called for an end to the death penalty.
“The church views it as a pro-life issue,” Robert Tasman, director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishop, said Tuesday afternoon.
The Louisiana Bishops supported an effort in 2017 to abolish capital punishment for future crimes. The legislation was presented as a way to save money because Louisiana, for reasons that go beyond the lack of appropriate pharmaceuticals, has been unable to execute an inmate against his will in 16 years. The measure passed a state Senate committee but was withdrawn when a similar House bill was rejected by a single vote in the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee.
The last time legislators attempted to change the mode of execution was in 2014 in legislation proposed by Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto when the Metairie Republican was a House representative. Initially, Lopinto’s bill would have reinstated the electric chair. But that was amended out in committee and measure was changed to keeping secret the identity of pharmaceutical companies that supplied the drugs used in lethal injections. Lopinto shelved it.
“We are grateful that the conversation has been brought to the level of legislation,” Tasman said, adding that the Bishops would like to see renewed legislative efforts to ban the death penalty.