A new analysis on the cost of the death penalty in Louisiana puts the total price for taxpayers over the past decade at a minimum of $15.6 million a year, a hefty sum, according to the study, that comes despite dwindling numbers of new death penalty cases.
The report’s authors, retired New Orleans district Judge Calvin Johnson and Loyola Law Prof. William Quigley, also said the cost of maintaining Louisiana's death penalty system through 2037 — the soonest, the authors estimated, that a killer who commits his crime later this year could be put to death after exhausting all appeals — would cost state taxpayers another $281 million.
Both Johnson and Quigley, who are both critics of Louisiana's death-penalty system, say that the state's system is “broken” and “does not work.” Death sentences are far costlier than life without parole, the authors note, even though it appears very few of those sentenced to death in Louisiana will be executed.
The study, released Thursday, used budget figures from the state’s public defenders, prison system and the state Legislature’s budget office to calculate the costs. When including the cost of local prosecutors, judges or courthouse staff, the price tag is far higher, the authors said.
Ben Cohen, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, which advocates for abolishing the death penalty, contributed research to the report.
The report, released Thursday morning, comes amid a renewed push by death penalty opponents in the Louisiana Legislature to abolish the death penalty during the current legislative session. State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, have introduced twin proposals aimed at ending capital punishment in the state.
Their bills likely face difficult odds of passing through the state's conservative House of Representatives.
State Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican up for re-election this year who's an outspoken advocate for carrying out the death penalty, noted the timing of the report amid debate in the State Capitol.
"What was left out of that report is that behind every crime is a victim," Landry said in a statement Thursday. "Louisiana must deliver on the promises it made to the families of the victims."
The substantial costs of the death penalty cases to Louisiana’s overburdened court system has been repeatedly invoked by its critics, including Claitor, a former prosecutor.
The death penalty’s defenders, including many of the state’s district attorneys, argue execution is an appropriate penalty for particularly heinous crimes. Some relatives of those killed by current death-row inmates have also made pleas to lawmakers to fulfill promises made by prosecutors by carrying out the executions.
“I take it as an insult when someone says it’s too expensive to execute," said Wayne Guzzardo during a Louisiana Public Broadcasting town hall program on the death penalty last month. Guzzardo's daughter, Stephanie, was murdered in 1995 by a man who remains on death row.
"They’re putting a price tag on my daughter’s life," Guzzardo said. "I don’t appreciate that.”
There are 65 men and one woman currently sentenced to death in Louisiana, according to the study. And since 2004, Louisiana spent well over $200 million on death penalty prosecutions, appeals and housing condemned inmates on death row, the study said.
During those 15 years, Louisiana executed just one prisoner, Gerald Bordelon, a convicted Livingston Parish killer who eased his own path to the death chamber by voluntarily dropping his appeals. He was executed in 2010.
Three innocent men have been freed from death row inmates over that same time period and a number of other death-row inmates had their sentences overturned by higher courts because of issues at trial.
Six more inmates died of natural causes while awaiting execution, according to data included in the report, and no one has been sentenced to death in Louisiana since 2016.
Some of the death penalty's critics — including the report's authors — argue the state's long-idled execution chamber means almost none of the killers condemned to die by juries will ever faced execution even as the punishment remains on the books and costly appeals drag on.
Sentencing murderers to life without parole would cost the state far less money than levying death sentences, the report concludes, a finding backed up by studies conducted in 18 other states.
The report also examined financial records from the so-called “Angola 5” cases — a group of five convicted murderers accused of fatally beating a prison guard during an attempted escape from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola just after Christmas in 1999 — to understand the total cost of death penalty cases.
Because the accused killers were Department of Corrections inmates, the state prison system covered the expense of the trials as prosecutors sought the death penalty for all five men.
The total bill for all five cases — which resulted in additional life sentences for three of the inmates and sentences of death for the other two — came to $10,671,281, or more than $2 million for each defendant, according to the report. That total does not include the cost of ongoing appeals for the two sentenced to die.