State executions shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy (copy)

Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola on Tuesday, June 13, 2017. 

District Attorney Don Burkett, of Many, keeps a photo of Wesley Mercer near his desk and pulls it out whenever he’s frustrated.

The 6-year-old is undeniably cute. He was tortured for a few days, then on March 8, 1992, held in a tub filled with scalding hot water and died.

“On those bad days, I look at it to remind myself of why I do this job,” said Burkett, who prosecuted and in May 1993 sent the boy’s stepfather, Christopher Sepulvado, to death row near the back of the massive Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Sepulvado was up for execution in 2014 when a federal court's ruling eventually stayed all Louisiana death sentences because the state had run out of the drugs necessary to legally execute by lethal injection and pharmaceutical companies had largely blocked further access.

Since Sepulvado is 75 and in failing health, Burkett said last week said he doesn’t think the killer's death sentence will ever be carried out. “I think he’ll die of natural causes,” Burkett said.

Burkett’s prediction was reinforced in a report released last week by the Death Penalty Information Center that found capital punishment continues to wane nationally. The Washington, D.C. based Center assiduously takes no position on the death penalty. But the group receives a lot of funding by big law firms that handle appeals of the condemned and criticizes the way capital punishment is administered.

The yearly accounting reported that New Hampshire in 2019 became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty. Only 22 inmates were executed during the past year. Ninety-eight were executed in 1999 and the numbers have dropped annually over the past two decades. Similarly, the number of the death sentences imposed in 2019, 33, were down again. In 1999, 272 people were sentenced to death.

Indiana joined the ranks of the 32 states that either ended the death penalty or haven’t carried out an execution in a decade. In little more than two weeks, on Jan. 7, Louisiana will become the 33rd state in that category. The last execution in Louisiana was Livingston Parish child killer Gerald Bordelon in January 2010.

Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana Association of District Attorneys, recently polled his members and found only 27 capital cases, pre- and post-indictment. He said the number of crimes for which a death penalty could legally be sought could be dramatically more. But state prosecutors are discerning. “The death penalty has been sparingly reserved for the worst of the worst,” he said.

Though Louisiana is waiting for a federal court to lift its stay, the future of capital punishment in Louisiana remains something of a mystery.

Bills that could have circumvented the federal stay by changing how the ultimate punishment is administered have failed to gain any traction over several sessions.

A measure that would have abolished the death penalty in Louisiana — sponsored by a Democratic representative who once headed the Louisiana State Police and a Republican senator who had been prosecutor — made it to the House chamber, where it was debated for more than hour before its chief sponsor, state Rep. Terry Landry, of New Iberia, saved his colleagues facing reelection from having to vote on the record about such a controversial issue.

Capital punishment came up only sparingly during the recent gubernatorial campaign. Republican Eddie Rispone said he adhered to the pro-life views of the Catholic Church, both on abortion and as they apply to the death penalty. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, also an adherent Catholic, has signed some of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion measures. But he also has avoided sharing his personal opinion on capital punishment, deflecting queries by saying he must follow the law.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican from New Iberia, initially rode to political prominence on the ultra-conservative tea party movement in Acadiana. He has spent much of his term criticizing Edwards on all manner of issues. That includes excoriating the Democratic governor for not doing enough to restart executing the 68 inmates on Louisiana death row by finding different drugs or returning to execution by “hanging, firing squad or electrocution.”

To be fair, Republican majorities in the Louisiana Legislature have shown little willingness to make any changes in the laws necessary to allow alternative means of execution.

That could change with the next Legislature.

The Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, cochaired by Landry, lavishly backed legislative candidates who now make up a near supermajority in the House and more than two-thirds of state senators, meaning they could pass most anything they want without regard to contrarians.

Built in the early 2000s, when the population was increasing every week, the front of Louisiana’s death row looks somewhat like an insurance office. The main difference is back where the inmates are housed.

Like a bicycle wheel, security is in the middle around which rows of cells radiate from the center like spokes.

Only a couple of rows have inmates awaiting execution — the rest have been filled with the incorrigible but not condemned.

They’re let out of their cells periodically but must stay on their row behind large windows where they can be watched, almost as if they're in an aquarium.

On a recent visit, a few of the condemned exercised while Sepulvado, on whose case the rest of these guys lives depend, sat on his bunk, cell door open, reading a Bible.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.