A bid to abolish the death penalty for future crimes in Louisiana is headed for a vote from the full Louisiana House after narrowly clearing the House Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday morning.
House Bill 215 by state Rep. Terry Landry, which would leave death sentences in place for prisoners on death row but abolish the punishment for crimes committed after August 1, still likely faces steep odds of making it into law.
Lawmakers on the House Criminal Justice Committee split along party lines in approving Landry's bill on an 8-to-7 vote. State Rep. Joseph Marino, an independent from Gretna, joined Democrats in voting to end the death penalty.
Two Republicans on the committee, Reps. Stuart Moss, of Sulphur, and Stephen Dwight, of Lake Charles, missed the Tuesday morning vote to see President Donald Trump visit their districts.
The legislation would need to win majority support from mostly conservative House lawmakers and from state senators, who last week decisively rejected a separate proposal to put the death penalty to a public vote.
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Landry, a New Iberia Democrat and former superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, brought similar legislation to abolish the death penalty in previous years. The same committee shot down his proposal last year.
Landry said he once supported the death penalty, but now felt morally compelled to press lawmakers to consider its abolition.
"I believe death by government is wrong," Landry said.
Opponents of the death penalty condemned the punishment as immoral and ineffective. Catholic bishops testified that executions violate the teachings of their faith and the "sanctity of human life."
Other critics noted the substantial costs to taxpayers of death penalty prosecutions and years of court appeals as well as the substantial number of death row inmates whose sentences have been overturned by higher courts.
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But relatives of victims emotionally described the agony of their loss and called execution the only fitting form of justice for heinous crimes.
"All we want is you to give our loved ones justice," Wayne Guzzardo told lawmakers before Tuesday morning's committee vote.
Guzzardo's daughter, Stephanie, was one of two employees murdered during robbery of the now-closed Calendar's Restaurant on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge in 1995. He's become an outspoken advocate for capital punishment, traveling to the State Capitol on several occasions to speak out against efforts to end the death penalty.
On Nov. 19, 1995, Todd Wessinger entered Calendar’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge to rob and kill.
Louisiana last carried out an execution in 2010 and has put just three inmates to death over the past two decades.
State prison officials have struggled in recent years to obtain drugs for lethal injections, the only method of execution allowed under state law, in part because drugmakers have taken steps in recent years to block the use of their products in executions.
Supporters of the death penalty lamented the slow pace of executions, the years-long slog through legal appeals and a seemingly never-ending wait for the sentence to be carried out.
Critics, too, pointed to the infrequency of executions, contrasting the number of executions in Louisiana in recent years with the larger number of innocent people freed from death row.
Among them was Shareef Cousin, who was 16 years old when a jury wrongfully convicted him in a 1995 slaying outside the Port of Call restaurant in New Orleans' French Quarter.
Cousin traveled from New Orleans to the State Capitol on Tuesday to ask politicians to scrap the death penalty. He spent several years on death row before the Louisiana Supreme Court tossed out his conviction and blasted prosecutors for withholding evidence.
"I want you to ask yourself how you would’ve felt if your son was 16 years old and placed on death row," Cousin told lawmakers, adding that the ordeal was also traumatizing for the family of the victim "because they thought the right person was on death row for the crime."
Rep. Raymond Crews, a Shreveport Republican, said he found concerns about the prospect of putting innocent people to death unconvincing, suggesting the possibility was an acceptable part of balance legislators strike when setting the law.
Crews also rejected arguments from religious groups that the death penalty ran contrary to the pro-life principles cited by anti-abortion lawmakers and activists.
The death penalty "teaches people morality, it teaches people that life is absolutely sacred," Crews said before voting to keep it as a punishment for murder in the state.
Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican who authored the anti-death penalty bill defeated in the Louisiana Senate last month, said he could bring the measure back up for another vote — and that he believed the tally might shift.
"I think this body is willing to take a close look at it," Claitor said.