Morrell's bill to eliminate Louisiana's death penalty passes Senate judiciary committee_lowres

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, supported a bill in 2017 to ban the death penalty in Louisiana.

A few minutes after the Louisiana Senate on Monday overwhelmingly rejected allowing a statewide vote to abolish the death penalty, senators ran through their “sanctity of life” speeches again then approved one of the strictest bans on abortion.

The juxtaposition of voting to kill adults and protect unborn babies wasn’t serendipity. It was parliamentary performance art planned by the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 112, Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Dan Claitor, a former New Orleans prosecutor. “When I put it (SB112) on the agenda, I made sure it would come up right before Milkovich,” he said, referring to Sen. John Milkovich’s Senate Bill 184, which would forbid procedures to end a pregnancy after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, usually around six weeks after conception and often before a mother knows she’s pregnant.

“I believe it’s an inconsistent vote,” Claitor said during an interview later in the week.

The proposal to let voters end the practice of government executing criminals was defeated on a 13-25 vote, while Milkovich’s anti-abortion measure advanced on a vote of 31-5.

Of the 39 state senators, only Claitor; Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge; Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette; Page Cortez, R-Lafayette; Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte; Fred Mills, R-Parks; and Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, voted in favor of both bills.

Claitor soft-sold his religious faith and moral views that were the real reasons for his efforts.

Instead, Claitor said he put on his Republican hat and tried to persuade fellow fiscal conservatives that they would jettison any other government program that cost so much — about $15.6 million annually — and yielded so few results. Only three Louisiana inmates have been executed this century, one of whom had to volunteer. Claitor points out that the 65 men and one woman currently sentenced to death are more likely to die of natural causes or be exonerated.

“If this one wasn’t the death penalty, we’d have pulled such a program long ago,” he said. “All that aside, when the government is involved in killing people for retribution, and that’s all this is, it cheapens life and makes society more violent.”

Claitor’s performance art, however, underscores Catholicism’s “consistent ethic of life” ideology that opposes abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.

Thirty years ago, Pope John Paul II reversed doctrine dating back to the Middle Ages by saying that modern prisons all but negated the limited exemption of society protecting itself that allowed for church-sanctioned executions. Pope Francis took it a step further, writing that the death penalty is "against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society.”

“Sen. Claitor wanted people to look at the contrast, the irony,” said Will Hall, director of public policy for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, headquartered in Alexandria. He had testified on both bills.

During committee hearings, Hall testified that the group that oversees 1,600 churches and 500,000 Baptists generally is against abolishing the death penalty and for tightening access to abortions.

Basically, Hall told The Advocate, the difference is a baby is innocent and an adult who has committed murder is not. “The government is to protect the people, promote the general interest of people and to punish the wicked,” he said.

Baptists want capital punishment to be fair and rare. The Bible unequivocally allows for the death penalty, Hall said, citing Luke 22;35-38.

Other passages include Genesis 9:5–6, and Leviticus 20:1–27.

Our Views: Don’t shield lethal injection in secrecy

More importantly is Romans 13:3–4, which is about a Christian’s duties to governing authorities. “If you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

As is often the case in Louisiana, politics trumps religious and moral considerations.

Southern Baptists are the second largest denomination, behind Louisiana’s 1.3 million Catholics. But when coupled with other denominations and evangelicals, Protestants account for about 60% of the state’s population.

Though abolishing the death penalty was shot down, promoters of capital punishment aren’t rushing to fix the current stall in executions: finding the chemicals necessary for lethal injection.

All the posturing aside, that problem could be fixed, arguably, with a bill that would add a firing squad to lethal injection in the law on the allowable method to execute the condemned.

Pro-death penalty legislators are pushing a measure that would make secret from the people paying the bill the purchases of the necessary chemicals. They’re not really rushing it. House Bill 258 cleared committee on Tuesday but won’t get a vote by the full House until May 20. That would allow only 11 days, if the schedule remains unchanged, to clear the Senate before the Legislature adjourns June 6.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.