A bid to end the death penalty in Louisiana was killed Wednesday night after a House committee rejected a bill that would eliminate capital punishment by a single vote.
The bill’s failure to get past the Administration of Criminal Justice committee seemed to signal that an identical bill that had been passed by a Senate committee, authored by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, would also fail to advance through legislature.
After Wednesday’s vote, Claitor said he would abandon his bill as well, according to multiple reports.
One of the nine lawmakers to vote against the bill, Rep. Steven Pylant, R-Winnsboro, was actually a co-sponsor of the bill. It was authored by Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia.
During debate on the issue, Pylant, a Republican and retired sheriff of Franklin Parish, said he was in fact “100 percent in favor of the death penalty,” and said he had put his name on the prospective legislation so that the public could be aware of how infrequently the death penalty was being administered in Louisiana, despite it being a law on the books.
[jump] Although 242 people have been sentenced to death in Louisiana during the “modern era” of the death penalty, which began in 1977, the state has executed just 28 of those inmates.
“The death penalty works, it just has to be done swiftly,” Pylant said, adding that aside from manning extra guards, it was his understanding that it was “just as costly” to house death row inmates as it was to house other inmates. Claitor had said that it costs the state significantly more to house death row inmates than other prisoners.
Pylant also insinuated that the logic behind the bill was flawed, because it would apply to cases moving forward, and wouldn’t retroactively affect the scores of inmates sitting on death row in Louisiana State Penitentiary.
“We talk about the death penalty, and people say I don’t have the right to take someone’s life,” Pylant said during debate. “But the 70-something on death row ... It's all right to execute them? We’re just not going to execute any more?”
The hardened stance toward supporting capital punishment seemed to mark a shift in opinion about the topic. During previous discussions, Pylant had signaled to fellow lawmakers that while he supported the death penalty as a moral issue, he would consider abolition of the practice for fiscal reasons.
"I think we've gotten to a place in a society that we live in that we have regressed," Pylant said during a House committee meeting in April 2016. "Maybe it's time we rethink the situation and look at the death penalty. It may have come to that point.”
Landry was among those who seemed surprised by Pylant’s comments, and urged him before the vote to act in good conscience.
“One day someone is going to ask us, ‘What did you do?” Landry told the committee, adding that Pylant would have to reflect then. “Did you take the safe way out? Did you take the political way out or did you do the right thing?”
Before the vote, Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, also said he would be voting against the measure, because he thought the district attorney’s discretion in pursuing the death penalty along with a separate penalty phase offered enough safeguard.
“My concern is that if we are to limit the discretion of the D.A. for the most heinous crimes then we may be infringing on rights of citizens to make that decision,” Mack said. “It’s up to 12 people sitting on the jury box to listen to the facts of cases, and they make that decision.”
Mack encouraged the discussion the bill provoked, however. He said that there was a time when he would have made efforts to kill the bill altogether, but that he had “evolved” as a legislator.
“I believe this debate is healthy,” Mack said.
Louisiana Public Defender James Dixon, who was present Wednesday to give information, told lawmakers that since 2008 the state has spent more than $100 million to defend capital cases. In that time, only one man - Gerald Bordelon - has been executed.
Among those who showed support of ending the death penalty on Wednesday were members of victim’s rights organizations and Bishop Shelton Fabre, who represents the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Fabre said the families are often “further violated” by the legal processes that accompany prolonged death penalty litigation, saying a death sentence offers merely “an illusion of closure.”
After Fabre testified, legislators heard from Ray Krone, a former death row inmate from Arizona who had been exonerated. He said he was one who had felt “victimized” by the system.
They were joined by Landry, who said he also believes in the “sanctity of life’’ as a Catholic, but also thinks that from a practical standpoint the death penalty “doesn’t work.”
“I don’t believe it makes us safer, and I don’t believe it’s a deterrent [against crime],” Landry said.
Hugo Holland with the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association spoke against the bill. To bolster his argument in support of capital punishment, he relayed the story of a prison guard - Capt. David Knapps - who was killed after inmates who had been convicted to life in prison had managed to escape.
“Life in prison just doesn’t do it for some folks because they are that evil,” Holland said.
He was joined by Bridget Dinvaut, the District Attorney for St. John the Baptist Parish, and Edie Triche, the mother of Jeremy Triche, one of two St. John deputies who were murdered during a shootout in 2012.
Two of the men accused of shooting Jeremy Triche and his colleagues are currently facing the death penalty.
“Law enforcement officers, like children and the elderly, are deserving of this protection,” Triche said. “To do away with the death penalty means my son didn’t matter at all.”
The bill failed with eight voting for it and nine voting against it.