death penalty

State Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, right, and state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, discuss a bill that would let citizens vote on abolishing the death penalty in Louisiana. Senate Bill 112, sponsored by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, passed out of the Senate Judiciary C Committee Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

As the death chamber sits idle at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the state’s executioners starved for nearly a decade of the drugs to kill the condemned, lawmakers in Baton Rouge are again pondering whether to abolish the death penalty.

After years of fruitless efforts, a bipartisan duo of state lawmakers — state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia — are pushing once more to abolish the death penalty for future crimes.

Claitor's bill, a proposed constitutional amendment, would put the question of abolishing capital punishing to Louisiana voters in the 2020 general election. Landry's would directly end the death penalty by amending state law and wouldn't require a vote of the public.

Claitor’s proposal cleared its first small legislative hurdle as it advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning after a debate that has become familiar in the State Capitol, with Catholic leaders citing scripture, activists noting the state’s lengthy list of innocents freed from death row and nearly all them toting up the astronomical costs to taxpayers in arguing for abolition.

Prosecutors who have sought sentences of death invoked the need to dispense harsh justice to the perpetrators of gruesome, horrific slayings. Some of the death penalty’s defenders pointed to its potential — though hotly disputed — ability to deter other would-be killers.

The rarity of executions in Louisiana — which has put only three people to death in the past two decades — has worked its way into the heart of the debate over the death penalty in the state.

Relatives of the victims of those on death row have come to the Capitol in recent weeks to complain of the anguishing, indefinite wait for the final sentence to be carried out. So, too, do the death penalty’s critics, who contrast the short list of executions in recent years with a lengthy tally of death sentences tossed out by higher courts and a number of innocent men freed from death row.

Seventy inmates sit on death row – 69 men and a single woman – a tally that’s dwindled with three deaths over the past two years. But those inmates, condemned by juries to execution for their crimes, died of natural causes.

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The state Department of Corrections, which is tasked with carrying out death sentences, has been unable in recent years to acquire drugs needed for lethal injections, the only method of execution allowed under Louisiana law. In late 2010, its store of deadly drugs expired and the pharmaceutical companies that supply them began refusing to sell them for executions.

Louisiana has repeatedly changed its proposed fatal cocktail of execution drugs in recent years in an unsuccessful effort to resume the death penalty. Lawsuits from death-row inmates over the mixtures — which in some cases resulted in botched executions in other states — led a federal judge to block executions, an order that remains in effect.

Prison officials have also gone to unusual lengths to obtain execution drugs, contacting an unlicensed out-of-state pharmacy and successfully obtaining one ingredient for a proposed two-part lethal cocktail from a Lake Charles hospital by saying the drugs were for a medical patient.

Another bill under consideration this year would keep the sources of execution drugs secret, a measure death penalty supporters hope would make it easier to carry out executions. A House committee will consider that bill Wednesday.

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Claitor and Landry both come from law enforcement — Claitor is a former prosecutor, and Landry is a former superintendent of Louisiana State Police. Both say they used to be proponents of the death penalty. Now, they cite a litany of ethical and practical reasons they’re trying to erase it from the books.

Louisiana hasn’t executed anyone since 2010, when a convicted murderer from Livingston Parish named Gerald Bordelon was put to death. Bordelon hastened his execution by voluntarily waiving his appeals.

Prior to Bordelon, the state's last execution occurred in 2002.

Since 2000, substantially more death row inmates — nine — have been exonerated than executed, with courts finding those nine men were sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit, State Public Defender Jay Dixon said Tuesday.

Dixon and other supporters of abolishing the death penalty argued that it’s an ineffective deterrent and wildly expensive. Public defenders alone have spent $111 million on death penalty cases since 2008, according to Dixon, a figure that doesn’t tally the millions more in taxpayer dollars spent by the courts, prosecutors and prisons.

Others critics invoked moral arguments in calling for an end to executions.

The executive director of Louisiana’s Conference of Catholic Bishops organization argued the punishment is a "fallacy of justice" and is morally wrong. Nicholas Mitchell, a race and racism research fellow at Loyola University, cited statistics that show African-American defendants are far more likely to be sentenced to death for killing white people than people of other races.

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“In order for you to believe the death penalty is something that’s appropriate, you have to hold the position that government doesn’t get it wrong," said state Sen. JP Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who presented Claitor's bill along with Landry.

Landry, a former head of the Louisiana State Police, invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in urging members to “put your hands on the arc” of the moral universe, “and move it toward justice.”

But Scott Perrilloux, the district attorney for Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, said the death penalty is needed to deliver “what victims consider to be justice” in particularly heinous crimes.

Perrilloux said the state’s long list of overturned death sentences, instead of an indictment, actually amounted to evidence that the system to enforce the death penalty works.

Unfair trials or wrongfully convicted inmates were eventually given new trials or set free. That, Perrilloux said, is a deep irony of Louisiana’s criminal justice system: Death sentences are given far greater scrutiny than other cases, even those involving life in prison. Perrilloux prosecuted the last man executed in Louisiana, but has also seen the other two death sentences won by his office overturned because of issues at the trials.

Claitor suggests there’s a fiscally conservative case to be made against the death penalty, even before getting into the moral and ethical questions.

“It’s ineffective and overly expensive,” said Claitor, who predicted the death penalty’s eventual abolition in Louisiana. “I think the public will come to see that and demand it of lawmakers. Lawmakers are frequently slow adopters.”

Claitor’s proposal, Senate Bill 112, now heads to the full Senate. The bills need a two-thirds vote from both chambers, along with the blessing of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Landry's bill, HB 215, is still awaiting a hearing in a House committee that has killed similar efforts in recent years. His bill would require only a simple majority for passage.

Edwards has been cagey about his view on the death penalty, saying only that he would uphold state law in carrying it out.

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It’s not clear if anything has changed politically at the State Capitol since lawmakers rejected Landry’s bill last year in a House committee. His bill is set for a hearing Wednesday morning before most of the same lawmakers.

“I think hearts have changed,” said Landry. “I don’t think the votes have changed.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated May 3 to accurently reflect the differences between Sen. Claitor’s and Rep. Landry’s anti-death penalty bills.

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Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @brynstole and Sam Karlin, @samkarlin.