Louisiana executions won’t resume anytime soon, but it’s not clear anyone will do something about it

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry wants Louisiana to start executing people again, but no one in the state appears interested in forcing the issue through legislation yet.

When Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge pushed a bill earlier this year to put a proposal on a statewide ballot letting voters decide whether to keep the death penalty, we supported the legislation, which ultimately failed, as a good way to clarify an important issue in Louisiana’s justice system.

People of good will can differ on whether those convicted of the worst crimes should be put to death. But the state should speak with a clear voice on such a grave matter, which hasn’t happened for years.

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A referendum could galvanize the political will needed to help break the current impasse on Louisiana’s capital punishment policy, something our elected leaders have been either unwilling or unable to do. As of now, Louisiana ostensibly allows capital punishment but in practice really doesn’t. Such a confused stance is a prescription for public cynicism, which doesn’t do anyone any good, especially crime victims seeking closure.

Confusion was surely the prevailing theme in this week’s news that Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has resumed a role in a federal lawsuit that’s put Louisiana’s executions on hold since 2014. Republican Landry, a professed champion of the death penalty, has accused Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of not pushing hard enough to resume executions, which have been delayed for years because the state lacks the drugs needed to legally put inmates to death. The lawsuit challenges the state’s current execution procedures as unjust, and the state has been agreeing to a series of postponements that have stretched on for years.

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Pharmaceutical companies have shied away from selling the drugs because capital punishment is increasingly unpopular. Edwards has pledged to follow the law regarding executions, though he surely hasn’t banged the drum for them.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has been pretty ambivalent, too, with lawmakers failing to advance practical workarounds to resume executions. Landry’s talked up reviving other forms of capital punishment like hanging, but if he were serious, he would have put a substantive proposal before the Legislature. 

An ill-conceived bill to shield the names of prospective providers of lethal execution drugs from public view didn’t pass. The bill’s defeat was good news for citizens, who surely don’t need more secrecy in government.

But good news has been hard to find in this saga, and the current spectacle, as Landy openly feuds with state officials he’s ostensibly defending in a lawsuit, doesn’t suggest Louisiana has consensus on capital punishment.

Polls show that most Louisianans still favor the death penalty, although influential institutions such as the Catholic Church, along with some conservatives like Claitor, a former prosecutor, oppose it. One study found that Louisiana spent more than $200 million over the past 15 years in court and prison costs related to capital punishment while executing only one prisoner.

Such realities underscore the need for serious reflection on Louisiana’s commitment to carrying out any more executions. Putting the issue on a statewide ballot is still a good idea. Depending on politicians to sort out capital punishment for us clearly hasn’t worked.