A bill that would let Louisiana residents vote on whether to ban the death penalty in the state advanced out of a Senate committee 4-2 Tuesday, the first of two controversial bills to make it out of the committee.
If voters decide in favor of the bill, it would make an amendment to the state constitution banning the death penalty for any offense committed on or after Jan. 1, 2021.
The bill would not affect existing death penalty cases.
State Sens. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, and Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, presented the bipartisan bill, which was authored by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, before the Senate Judiciary C committee. Both Morrell and Landry cited concerns about cases where people on death row later were found to be innocent.
“If you do not hold that government gets it right every single time, then death should not be on the table,” said Morrell, a former New Orleans public defender.
Landry agreed, adding, “I also believe that our system is driven sometimes by overzealous police officers, overzealous prosecutors, political pressure — and sometimes we get it wrong.”
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State Public Defender James Dixon said the Louisiana Public Defender Board (LPDB) has spent over $103 million on costs relating to the death penalty since 2008. The state executed one person in that time, a man named Gerald Bordelon, who voluntarily waived his appeals.
At the end of this fiscal year, that amount will rise to $111 million, Dixon said. This is not the total amount the death penalty costs the state, which also includes court spending, prosecutor spending and jury costs.
“There seems to be a misconception among many that the cost of incarcerating someone for life is more expensive than the death penalty. Studies have been done throughout the United States actually showing the opposite is true,” Dixon said, adding that life in prison is between $500,000 to $1.5 million cheaper per case than pursuing the death penalty.
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Opponents of the bill, including District Attorneys (DAs) Scott Perrilloux of Livingston Parish and Perry Nicosia of St. Bernard Parish, argued the death penalty helped give some victims' families a sense of justice.
Nicosia, who was sworn in in 2014, argued that the culture around the death penalty has changed and that DAs only use it in rare cases.
“It would take an extreme, horrific circumstance I think for any DA currently the way we posturize ourselves and the way we take our jobs seriously,” he said. “...I think as a country, as a state and as a society, things are getting better.”
Capital punishment disproportionately affects black residents in Louisiana; the chances of receiving the death penalty in the state is far greater when the victim is white than when the victim is black and when the perpetrator is black than when the perpetrator is white.
Religious leaders had differing opinions on the bill. Executive Director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops Rob Tasman testified in favor of the bill, quoting Pope Francis, who has stated his opposition to the death penalty in all cases.
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Will Hall of the Louisiana Baptists testified against it, arguing that even if no conclusive evidence has shown the death penalty is an effective deterrent for murder, the punishment aspect of it was important.
“Sometimes punishment is just for punishment,” Hall said.
The original bill set a public vote on the issue for this October, should the bill become law. But an amendment changed that vote to coincide with the 2020 presidential election, with legislators citing higher voter turnout.
Sens. Claitor, Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge; Troy Carter, D-New Orleans; and Yvonne Colomb, D-Baton Rouge voted in favor of the bill. Sens. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, and Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, voted against it.
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The bill does not specify when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. But ultrasounds can generally detect them around six or seven weeks of pregnancy — in some cases, later than many women discover they’re pregnant.