The three announced candidates for governor all have different positions on the future of the death penalty in Louisiana – revealing one of the most striking policy contrasts among them in the race, to date.
Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone opposes the death penalty; U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham thinks it should be used more; and Gov. John Bel Edwards won’t divulge his personal views, instead saying he will uphold whatever's in state law.
Abraham and Rispone are both Republicans challenging the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.
The election is Oct. 12. A Nov. 16 runoff will take place between the top two vote-getters if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, regardless of party.
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 inmate 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, all while debate over the death penalty's future has simmered.
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The state has agreed that it will carry out no executions at least for another year as a legal battle wages over its lethal injection protocol, so whoever wins the governor's race this fall could be instrumental in determining the future of capital punishment in Louisiana after the new term starts in January 2020.
“I really don’t believe in the death penalty,” Rispone told The Advocate on Thursday. “It goes back to my faith – really and truly. If it was proven to be a deterrent and it saved innocent lives, then I would probably have to think hard about it again.”
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Rispone contrasted the death penalty with war, which he said is necessary. “We have to go to war to save innocent lives,” he said. “But I’m not convinced that (the death penalty)’s a deterrent.”
He said he came to that conclusion after discussions with prosecutors and others in law enforcement.
“The DAs say they spend so much time on the death penalty and could be out prosecuting way more people if they didn’t have to go through that," Rispone said.
Abraham, meanwhile, has sided with Attorney General Jeff Landry in aggressively pushing for the use of the death penalty in Louisiana.
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“Not only am I in favor of the death penalty, but I’m also in favor of enforcing it," Abraham, R-Alto, told The Advocate. "If you murder someone in Louisiana, you should know that when caught you will be put to death.
"While we’re at it, I’d like to see child molesters added to the list of death penalty eligible person," Abraham added. "There is no greater monster than someone who harms an innocent child.”
Edwards has repeatedly deferred to state law on the matter and dismissed questions about his personal views on the topic.
"I took an oath to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and the state of Louisiana," Edwards said in a statement last fall when The Advocate asked for clarity on his position. "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."
Landry, a Republican seeking re-election as AG this year, has helped put a spotlight on the issue in recent months, accusing Edwards of playing a role in executions being put on hold and publicly criticizing the governor's lack of clarity on his personal position. The AG recently orchestrated a State Capitol hearing on the future of the death penalty that included testimony from families of murder victims whose killers remain on death row.
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.
The debate over the death penalty often is further complicated in heavily Roman Catholic populated south Louisiana. Pope Francis, an outspoken critic of the death penalty, has issued a proclamation that the death penalty is unacceptable in any case in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
Edwards and Rispone are Catholic (as is Landry), and Abraham is Baptist. All oppose abortion, a position frequently noted in the death penalty discussion.
Attempts to abolish capital punishment have been made in recent years at the State Capitol, but the effort continues to face major resistance in both the Republican-controlled House and Senate. The debate hasn't gotten a formal recorded vote in either chamber in the past two years that it’s been proposed.
Multiple bills have been prefiled ahead of the regular session that begins April 8 that again call for an end to the use of capital punishment in Louisiana. Separately, legislation has been proposed that would conceal providers of lethal injection drugs, possibly freeing up the state to resume carrying out executions.