The Louisiana House fell quiet as state lawmakers laid out their views on the death penalty, weighing the brutal crimes of those condemned to die against the failings of the justice system and moral arguments against state-sanctioned killing.
And then the man who’d began the debate, state Rep. Terry Landry, returned to the podium and abruptly announced he wasn’t going to put the bill, which would’ve abolished the death penalty as a punishment for any future crimes, to a vote.
Landry, an imposing New Iberia Democrat, began the debate by calling his fight to end capital punishment the “toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“I didn’t have the votes, I knew I didn’t have the votes,” Landry said afterward, standing just outside the chamber among activists who’d fought to end the death penalty crowded.
Landry said he’d spoken with colleagues “struggling” over what position to take and “conflicted” over capital punishment. Raising the political stakes are elections looming just a few months off.
“Why make them cast a vote that could hurt them politically?” said Landry. “I didn’t want to put them in a position where they have to vote for something that I know could not win and they were going to pay a dear price for it.”
Landry’s decision to pull the measure, House Bill 215, ends a three-year campaign to end the death penalty by the retiring lawmaker. It also ends a push this year by religious groups and criminal justice advocates to do away with the death penalty.
But it also marked the first time in years that the future of Louisiana’s death penalty has been weighed directly on the House floor, perhaps a sign of growing public debate over capital punishment in a state that’s long embraced it.
Opponents and supporters alike have derided the state’s current death penalty as dysfunctional and broken. Relatives of victims complained of waiting indefinitely for executions while critics described an arbitrary, expensive and colossally inefficient system of punishment.
The state’s execution chamber at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has sat idle for years, as prison officials have struggled to obtain the drugs to carry out lethal injections, the only method of execution allowed by state law.
Although 66 inmates sit on death row, Louisiana hasn’t carried out an execution since 2010, putting to death a Livingston Parish killer who’d sped his execution by voluntarily waiving his appeals. The only other executions in the past two decades were in 2000 and 2002.
In the nine years since the state’s last execution, three innocent men have been freed from Louisiana’s death row after courts overturned their convictions for murders they didn’t commit.
State Rep. Cedric Glover, a Democrat and former Shreveport mayor, invoked the name of one of those men on Thursday, urging colleagues to end the death penalty for Glenn Ford.
Ford, a Shreveport man who spent 30 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted in 1984, was set free in 2014 and died just over a year later.
“He had the chance to breathe free, although with difficulty, before he died,” said Glover.
New Orleans Rep. Royce Duplessis and Monroe Rep. Katrina Jackson, both Democrats, also voiced their support.
“This is not about justice, this is about vengeance,” declared Duplessis, “and vengeance … does not belong to us, it belongs to God.”
State Reps. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, and Raymond Crews, R-Shreveport, both took the floor to highlight particularly “heinous” crimes for which death appears the just punishment.
“What do we tell victims?” Connick asked Landry.
Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, argued that abolishing the death penalty would “limit” a prosecutor’s ability to seek “justice” when faced with someone accused of a brutal killing.
Louisiana voters opposed to the death penalty, Mack argued, can elect district attorneys who pledge not to seek it. But Mack told his colleagues they shouldn’t stop district attorneys elsewhere in the state from pressing for a death sentence.
Relatives of victims, prosecutors and pro-death penalty politicians have urged the state to find ways to restart executions and speed the labyrinth of court hearings and appeals.
A bill aimed at making it easier to carry out executions by cloaking the source of lethal injection drugs in secrecy easily passed the House, 68 to 31, earlier this week and is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.
The secrecy bill’s backers hope that hiding suppliers from the public might allow the state to obtain execution drugs from small compounding pharmacies reluctant to face scrutiny or potential protests if their involvement with the death penalty was publicly revealed.
Landry, a retired state trooper who led the Louisiana State Police under Gov. Mike Foster, told colleagues he was once “an avid proponent of the death penalty” but that his Catholic faith and experience in a criminal justice system “with many flaws” changed his views.
“I am convinced we’ve sent innocent people to death by wrongful convictions,” Landry said. “I am convinced that this law is not making us any safer.”
Longtime state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, described deeply conflicted feelings toward capital punishment. He told colleagues he’d struggled over how to vote in recent days before ultimately deciding to back Landry’s bill to abolish it for future killings.
But that vote never came.