The debate over whether or not the state of Louisiana should take someone’s life as punishment for a crime is expected to heat up this year. The Legislature will consider two bills, one in each chamber, to abolish the death penalty in the state.
Unlike recent attempts to abolish capital punishment, these bills are being filed by lawmakers who otherwise have a reputation as “law and order” types. It would give these bills a better chance of passage.
Three legislators have introduced bills to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana. All three have have experience with the criminal justice system: Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge worked as a prosecutor in New Orleans, Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, as State Police superintendent under Gov. Mike Foster and Rep. Steven Pylant, R-Winnsboro as Franklin Parish sheriff.
Claitor and Landry said their views on the death penalty had changed over time. Claitor said his Roman Catholic faith is a major factor in why he changed his mind, but he is also concerned that the death penalty is expensive and not effective. “I definitely expect support from the Catholic Church,” he said.
As head of the State Police, Landry was deeply involved in the investigation into Derrick Todd Lee, who was linked to the deaths of seven women in south Louisiana, convicted and sentenced to death. Lee died in early 2016 of heart problems while awaiting execution. Landry mentions his involvement in investigating Lee’s case on his legislative website.
Still, Landry said he now questions whether the death penalty makes Louisiana safer. He is also concerned about the cost. “I’ve evolved to where I am today,” he said. “I think it may be a process that is past its time.”
Louisiana last executed someone in 2010. Since then, the state has been unable to get the drugs necessary to perform lethal injection. The reason is the manufacturers of the drugs did not want to be associated with capital punishment and have stopped providing them to states. Attempts to substitute drugs have resulted in botched executions across the country.
A bill that would’ve allowed drug companies to supply Louisiana with lethal injection drugs in secret was considered in 2014, but never received a vote in the full Legislature. To be frank, such a law would be a slap in the face to transparency and open government.
The Legislature has two choices, they can change the method of execution or they can abolish the death penalty like Dan Claitor, Terry Landry, and Steve Pylant want to do. Before we decide what to do, we have to consider all the facts in play.
If Louisiana decides to change its method of execution, it has to be wary of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. It would certainly rule out a return to the electric chair. That leaves two options, hanging or firing squad. Hangings are easily botched and while the firing squad is effective, it may be too primitive for the likes of many Louisianians.
There is another thing that has to be understood here, Louisiana already has a de facto moratorium on capital punishment. The state has not executed anyone in almost 7 years and is not scheduled execute anyone until the end of the decade and it’s highly unlikely that execution will take place. It is safe to say that Louisiana’s capital punishment regime is not a deterrent.
The state can speed up executions by limiting appeals, but it would increase the likelihood of the state executing an innocent person. According to the Innocence Project, 20 death row inmates have been exonerated of their crimes due to DNA testing since 1989. As a country, we try to go out of our way to ensure only the guilty are punished. It is especially true if we’re going to take their lives. That is also why death penalty cases are the most expensive to try and appeal.
We have to also consider the families of the victims of these people. At this point, simply having a non-functional death penalty regime is denying these people closure. At least a life prison sentence would grant that closure and allow them to move on with their lives, knowing that this was behind them.
What we have in Louisiana is a death penalty regime that is neither cheap nor a deterrent. In addition, it is a very good possibility that the Federal courts will strike it down, even with a conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, I cannot reconcile my skepticism of government on all levels with support for giving it the power to take human life as punishment, even if they are the vilest and most depraved people in society. I believe the criminal justice system does make mistakes and I believe that there is a real risk that the state would execute an innocent person.
For those reasons, I have turned against the death penalty. A few years ago, I would’ve strongly opposed these bills, but now I hope the Legislature will pass them. Life imprisonment without parole in Angola Prison is certainly enough of a punishment and is likely more of a deterrence than sitting and waiting for an execution date that will almost certainly never come at this rate.