Does Gov. John Bel Edwards support the death penalty? It's a question that chief political rival Attorney General Jeff Landry has been pushing for weeks now, with no clear answer from the governor, who has repeatedly deferred to state law on the matter and dismissed questions about his personal views on the topic.
"The biggest frustration is that the governor just won't give us an answer. For me, it's an issue that is a frustration for all of the constituents of Louisiana who are asking the same question," Landry said in a recent interview with The Advocate. "We're not asking the governor a particularly tough question."
Edwards, a Democrat, and Landry, a Republican who has admitted he's eyeing a run for governor next year, have frequently been at odds on a number of topics, but the death penalty question has continued to simmer as the state agreed that it will carry out no executions at least for another year as a legal battle wages over the state's lethal injection protocol.
Landry, who blames Edwards for the delay, recently made headlines when he tweeted last month: "This is simple: I support the death penalty — by lethal injection, gas, hanging, and firing squad. Does (Edwards)?"
But the question over the death penalty can be a complicated one, particularly in an area as heavily Roman Catholic populated as south Louisiana.
Pope Francis, an outspoken critic of the death penalty, on Thursday issued a proclamation that the death penalty is unacceptable in any case, in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
Both Edwards and Landry are Catholic. Both are anti-abortion, a position frequently noted in the death penalty discussion.
Michael Pasquier, a professor of religious studies and history at LSU, said the death penalty can be complicated for Catholics.
"The Catholic church's opposition to the death penalty is directly related to its pro-life positions, which is right alongside abortion in that all life is sacred and the dignity of all individuals should be maintained, even those who have committed terrible violence against their fellow human beings. Killing is simply wrong," he said.
Pasquier said it's not surprising that many Catholics could come to differing conclusions on the issue.
"Catholics are also Democrats and Republicans, white and African-American, men and women," he said. "Catholics aren't just Catholics. They're going to include their Catholic beliefs alongside political ideologies, personal feelings and personal backgrounds.
"No one has a simply Catholic worldview, which means in a state like Louisiana, there are many Catholics who support the death penalty."
Edwards, who has repeatedly stressed his position of upholding whatever stands in Louisiana law, declined The Advocate's request for an interview on Friday but in a written statement reiterated his focus on what current law says and again did not elaborate on his personal belief on the topic.
Edwards' family history is deeply entrenched in law enforcement. His brother is the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, a position that various Edwards family members have held since the turn of the 19th century.
"As a Catholic Christian, the teachings of the Church and guidance from the Pope are always of great importance to me, and this issue is no different," Edwards said in his statement. "But as it relates to execution, my position has not changed and I direct you to my previous statement."
He said the issue boils down to the state's inability to carry out the death penalty, due to legal challenges.
"I took an oath to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and the state of Louisiana," he said, echoing past statements. "The fact of the matter is that we cannot execute someone in the state of Louisiana today because the only legally prescribed manner set forth in state statute is unavailable to us. That's not through any fault of my own or the Department of Corrections."
He went on to note a statement Landry made on Twitter expressing support for execution by other means that are not legal in Louisiana law, including firing squads and hangings.
The spat between Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry over Louisiana's long-stalled use of capital punishment continued to p…
"The Attorney General and I have very different views on hangings, firing squads, etc.," Edwards said. "I'm not inclined to go back to methods that have been discarded because popular sentiment turned against them or maybe some methods that were deemed to be barbaric and so forth."
Landry said he has no trouble balancing that Catholic faith with carrying out the death penalty because his focus is justice for victims.
"I'm always first and foremost mindful that there is a victim on the other end," Landry said.
And he said he believes that extends beyond victims of crime and their families.
"Even the community is a victim," Landry said. "The more crime in a community, the more unstable it is. All it does is spiral into an abyss — a disaster. It's like a cancer."
Louisiana is one of 31 states that still allow the death penalty as a form of criminal punishment. Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, and that prisoner volunteered to be executed. The issue has been tangled up in the legal system amid a fight over the state's process for lethal injection.
Attempts to abolish capital punishment have come up in recent years at the State Capitol, but it continues to face major resistance in both the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
In their ongoing bickering over the death penalty, Louisiana’s Republican attorney general Tuesday asked the Democratic governor to support b…
Proponents of abolishing the death penalty say it will reduce costs and could save innocent lives of those wrongly convicted. Opponents say the measure comes across as soft on crime and lessens the weight placed on the most heinous crimes committed in the state.
Rep. Terry Landry, a New Iberia Democrat with more than three decades of experience in law enforcement, has been one of the chief voices behind the effort to end the death penalty here.
When he first proposed legislation to end capital punishment, he didn't have high expectations.
"I just didn't think the political climate was conducive or the political courage was there," he said. "Sometimes the best piece of legislation doesn't make it in the first round."
In the past two years, the issue hasn't gotten a formal recorded vote in either chamber, but Terry Landry said he thinks it's important to foster the debate and continue the dialogue on the issue. His opposition boils down to three major issues: cost, possibility of executing innocent people and the fact that studies have shown that it hasn't proven to be a deterrent to crime.
"Spiritually, if we are pro-life, for me, that means from the womb to the tomb," he said. "It's a barbaric act as far as I'm concerned."
Terry Landry said he believes other legislators are with him in spirit, even if the votes aren't there, particularly among those who have eyes on judicial or prosecutor jobs in the future.
"I've got a lot of people who will tell me they agree with me but they can't vote to abolish it," he said.
Jeff Landry, the attorney general whose home is only several miles from Terry Landry's, said he believes victims' families deserve to know where the governor stands on the issue as it continues to be debated in the Capitol.
"Which one is it?" Jeff Landry mused. "He's trying to be cute by half, and that in itself is an injustice to the criminal justice system."
Landry said he's heard from "a number" of victims' families who are awaiting the executions of their relatives' killers.
"The governor seems to be focused on the convicts and their rights," Landry said. "We've missed in this whole discussion the rights for victims."
Wayne Guzzardo, whose daughter Stephanie was killed by in a double murder at the Calendar’s restaurant in Baton Rouge in 1995, has been waiting more than two decades to see her killer, Todd Wessinger, put to death.
The recent fight, and further delay of capital punishment in Louisiana, has exacerbated the pain, he said.
"All we are doing is fighting for justice for our daughter," Guzzardo said. "We'll keep doing it until he's executed or we are dead."
He opposes efforts to abolish the death penalty and said he is upset with the governor for not taking a stance. He said he also believes the governor has been insinuating that families, like the Guzzardos, are being used.
"John Bel isn't real truthful when this situation comes down," Guzzardo said. "We've never been political. We've never intended to be political, but we have no choice but to say what is on our mind."
He said he doesn't know the attorney general, but he also wants a straight answer from the governor.
"He won't let us know," Guzzardo said. "All we want to know is 'yes' or 'no.' Does he believe in the death penalty? He won't do it."