State legislators took a deep dive Tuesday into Louisiana’s stalled death penalty system, but it’s unclear what – if any – legislation may come out of the nearly five-hour Capitol hearing.
“This issue is a passionate issue. People are passionate on both sides, and they need to be,” said House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee Chair Sherman Mack, R-Albany.
Much of Tuesday’s hearing, which was administered in part by Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, centered on complaints about the death penalty being put on hold in Louisiana and how the state might move forward with administering capital punishment.
“In Louisiana, death row doesn’t mean death row anymore,” said Landry, a Republican who is seeking re-election this year and has been a vocal advocate of re-instating its use of the death penalty here.
Louisiana is one of 31 states that still allow the death penalty as a form of criminal punishment in law. But the state’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.
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For several hours, the House panel heard from grieving victims’ family members and other capital punishment supporters, while opponents of the death penalty spoke during a shorter public comment period at the meeting’s end.
The tilt toward favoring capital punishment left many legislators and others who oppose the death penalty complaining that the hearing was tainted with partisanship.
Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, said she felt that the event was orchestrated as a “set up” to target Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, described the scene as a pro-death penalty “pep rally.”
Attorney General Jeff Landry is blaming Gov. John Bel Edwards for the continued delay of executions in Louisiana and has withdrawn his office …
The Edwards’ administration, which was not invited to take part in the hearing, has said it, as with other states, has been unable to procure lethal injection drugs as companies seek to distance themselves from the practice.
“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,” Edwards said in a statement after the hearing. “In the time since we last had this conversation, nothing has changed – the drugs are not available and legislation has not passed to address concerns of drug companies or offer alternative forms of execution.”
Edwards, who is seeking re-election this year, has declined to say his personal views of the death penalty other than he would follow whatever is in state law, if able.
Landry, a frequent critic of the governor, said other states have been able to work around similar challenges.
“We must be vigilant in ensuring that the punishments are imposed are implemented,” he said. “True justice is the punishment being carried out.”
Landry has a personal connection to one of the most high-profile death penalty cases in recent decades. As a young boy in St. Martinville, he remembers attending the funerals in 1977 of the teens killed by Pat Sonnier, the since executed death row inmate whose story is told in the book and movie Dead Man Walking.
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Landry’s grandmother was close friends with the mother of Loretta Ann Bourque, who was raped and killed after attending a homecoming football game.
“I remember the effect it had on the family,” Landry said. “I remember her on the pew – she went to Mass daily and cried.”
That insight is part of the reason why he pushed for Tuesday’s hearing to feature the anguished testimony from family members of victims.
Albert Culbert Jr.’s sister, niece and brother were murdered in Shreveport in 1985 when Culbert was 36 years old. He’ll turn 70 later this year, he said, and their killer remains on death row.
“After so many years, why has nothing been done?” he said.
But death penalty opponents expressed frustration as the hearing stretched on with only death penalty supporters having their say.
E. King Alexander, a member of the Republican State Central Committee and member of Louisiana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty described the hearing as a “nauseating” review of how other states have dealt out capital punishment.
“It does look one sided if you look at the notice that the – everybody they list to speak is pro-death penalty,” he said.
He said he doesn’t believe that the death penalty should be based on individual emotions about singular, heinous crimes.
“If you frame the issue as ‘Does this particular killer deserve to die for what they did?’ the answer would frequently be ‘yes,’” Alexander said. “From a conservative point of view, it’s just ineffective. We should have laws that are based on fact and reason and do things that work.”