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Louisiana conservatives rethinking the death penalty 

Some death penalty advocates are rethinking their position as Louisiana grapples with a huge deficit

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In 1999, six men attempted a notorious escape from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In the mayhem, a guard was beaten to death with a hammer.

  One of the inmates was killed, and the others, who became known as "the Angola 5," already were serving life sentences for other crimes. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, and five capital murder trials ensued. Seventeen years later, none has been executed. Three either have pleaded guilty and received life sentences or gotten juries that refused the death penalty.

  Estimates show that last year more than $14 million was spent on just one of those death penalty cases. Since then, a court ruling has reduced the number of death sentences in that case to two — but because both defendants are still exhausting appeals, the cost of trying to execute the two continues to climb.

  Recent estimates also show that Louisiana spends about $10 million a year on indigent capital defense — a number that doesn't cover the total cost of the death penalty. That cost also includes housing inmates on death row, jury costs and prosecutorial fees.

  "Now, as Gov. John Bel Edwards attempts to close a nearly $600 million state budget shortfall — a deficit that will result in cuts across numerous state agencies — the price of the death penalty has lawmakers and taxpayers alike questioning its value in Louisiana.

  Among those shaking heads is state Rep. Steve Pylant, a conservative Republican and the retired sheriff of Franklin Parish. Pylant long had supported the death penalty as a moral issue, but in April he said he's shifting his viewpoint given the fiscal burden the policy puts on the state.

  "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. "Maybe it's time we rethink the situation and look at the death penalty. It may have come to that point."

Many in Louisiana still publicly support the death penalty, at least in concept, and experts who oppose it say it's unlikely the state will abolish the practice any time soon.

  But longtime conservatives who conclude it's too expensive in today's climate aren't a political novelty. According to Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham, it's a trend.

  "If money grows on trees, what it costs to finance the death penalty doesn't matter," Dunham said. "But when Louisiana, for example, faces an extreme budget crisis and cannot fund basic services, the question becomes, 'What is more important for the public good: health care and education, or death sentences?'"

  Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of the reform group Equal Justice USA founded in 2013, backs up Durnham. The group supports the death penalty's growing opposition among conservative — and "very conservative" — Americans who believe in fiscal responsibility and are pro-life, yet see those qualities as incompatible with capital punishment.

  "People have been against the death penalty for years, but didn't have an outlet," Marc Hyden, national coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, told Red Alert Politics, an online publication for young conservatives, in March.

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Like other pro-death penalty states, Louisiana has faced scrutiny recently for its death penalty practices.

  In March, Michael Wearry became the 58th death row inmate in the state since 2000 to have his conviction overturned. His case is one of 129 reversals (versus 28 executions) since 1977. Former inmate Glenn Ford was exonerated in 2014, after spending 30 years on death row. After his release, the prosecutor in the case issued a public apology, calling the trial "fundamentally unfair" because of an inexperienced defense and key evidence being withheld.

  But when considering abolition of the death penalty, what resonates most with legislators across party lines isn't the risk of wrongful conviction, the question of prosecutorial conduct or argument over cruel and unusual punishment — it's money.

  "We hear about innocence and DNA and all that, but the point at which you to begin to see an emerging drop in support of the death penalty among conservatives was after the recession," Dunham said. "When you don't have money to pay for basic functions and you're watching government collapse, you have to ask questions you would of any other policy: Is it cost-effective?"

  No comprehensive study has been completed that determines exactly how much the death penalty costs Louisiana taxpayers. In 2014, the Legislature tasked the Fiscal Impact Commission to study costs associated with capital defense, prosecution and time on death row. It was slated to be finished this year, but now isn't due until January 2018.

  The issue has been researched in other states, however, and the results are stark. In Nevada, the public spends an average of $500,000 more on death penalty cases than it does on similar cases that call for lesser sentences, such as life without possibility of parole, according to a 2014 state audit. In Washington, a Seattle University study last year found that each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than non-capital cases. A study released in California in January found that the state spends roughly $307.7 million per execution. The number was based solely on incarceration costs and doesn't take into account the additional costs of the appeals process, capital trials or legal representation for inmates facing the death penalty.

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Given the fiscal burden of the death penalty, legislators now are considering bills to ensure new capital cases don't drive Louisiana further into debt.

  The Louisiana House of Representatives has passed House Bill 1137 by Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, which would require the Louisiana Public Defender Board to spend more of its budget on local public defender districts. Mack chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee.

  The bill, which was headed to a Senate judiciary committee in April, calls for 65 percent of the state public defender board's $33 million in direct state funding to go to local districts — a significant increase over the 50 percent that goes there now.

  During an April hearing, local public defenders were divided on the proposed law. Some felt it would secure much-needed funds to critically strapped offices, while others said it wouldn't solve the bigger problem: that indigent defense as a whole needs more money to work effectively.

  Last week, a group of Louisiana district attorneys accused the statewide public defender board of spending too much on private law firms that handle capital cases and not enough on local public defender boards, which are struggling financially. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association even alleged fiscal mismanagement.

  State Public Defender Jay Dixon disputed those claims. He told The Advocate the private law firms are all nonprofits, and when local funds for public defender offices are added in, only about one-sixth of the $66 million total spent statewide on public defenders goes toward capital cases.

  Supporters and opponents of the bill agree on one thing: The additional money for local boards likely would come at the expense of statewide indigent capital defense. With the state facing public defender budget crises, the board would have nowhere else to draw money.

  Currently about 28 percent of the state public defender board's budget, or $9.5 million, is spent providing death penalty defense. It pays for mostly private lawyers in nonprofit agencies to litigate about 40 capital cases.

  By comparison, about $15 million of the public defender board's $33 million budget goes to the local districts.

  Two other bills filed in April — HB 1090, authored by state Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, and Senate Bill 450, authored by state Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans — would establish a Capital Cost Commission to determine if funds are available before allowing capital prosecutions to proceed.

  As of late April, the bills remained in committee. Opponents questioned whether they would be too arbitrary, but supporters called the commission a best-case scenario for limiting death penalty sentences.

  Meanwhile, as lawmakers in Louisiana grapple with how to control death penalty costs, a local criminal justice nonprofit has unveiled a new study showing the majority of taxpayers in Louisiana no longer want to put their dollars behind capital punishment.

  According to a survey commissioned by the Promise of Justice Initiative, which seeks to reform Louisiana's criminal justice system, 52 percent of taxpayers throughout the state want to eliminate the death penalty.

  The statewide poll of 600 Louisiana voters shows that respondents, by a 2-1 margin, prefer life sentences to the death penalty as a punishment for first-degree murder (the only crime in Louisiana punishable by a death sentence).

  The declining support for capital punishment corresponds with a decline in death sentences in Louisiana over the last two decades. During the 1980s and 1990s, Louisiana was sentencing approximately 80 people to death per decade. Since then there's been a nearly 75 percent decrease in new death sentences in the state. Louisiana has sentenced 54 people to death since 2000, and only one person was sentenced to death last year, according to Beth Compa, a staff attorney for the Promise of Justice Initiative.

  "People are coming away from the mid-'90s thought where 'tough on crime' was best policy," Compa said. "With the number of wrongful executions and wrongful convictions, it's so basic that people don't have to get into the weeds of policy to understand it."

  Local death penalty lawyers agree, including local attorney Nick Trenticosta.

  Trenticosta, who has worked to abolish the death penalty since 1980, points to his research: data compiled on every death sentence, exoneration and reversal since 1977. It shows an 82 percent reversal rate of death sentences handed down in Louisiana in the past 40 years. That research was reinforced last month in a new study released in the Journal of Race, Gender and Poverty, which also showed Louisiana had double the number of exonerations than the national rate.

  Statistically speaking, that means more than 60 percent of inmates currently on death row are likely to have their cases overturned — after the state spends millions fighting their appeals.

  "Are we getting our bang for our buck?" Trenticosta asked. "I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me the cost-benefit analysis."

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Louisiana long has been a pro-death penalty state, and high-profile politicians have echoed that preference. During his tenure as governor, Bobby Jindal was an outspoken supporter of applying the death penalty for cases of rape as well as first-degree murder. "Child rape is in some ways worse than homicide," Jindal has said.

  Last year, then-Caddo Parish District Attorney Dale Cox gained notoriety for saying Louisiana "should kill more people."

  Hugo Holland, one of the prosecutors involved in the Angola 5 case, is another outspoken supporter of capital punishment. In April, Holland told legislators that attempts to fund capital defense is the work of "anti-capital punishment zealots" on the Louisiana Public Defender Board, who are "trying to price it out of existence" in the court system.

  Holland spoke during a hearing on Mack's HB 1137, which the House subsequently passed, saying the potential siphoning of funds from capital defense was one reason he supported the bill, citing "the amount of time wasted in capital cases because of the current system, the amount of money that's thrown at it."

  Most Americans still support the death penalty for serious crimes. Last year, 61 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll said they favor the death penalty; that number represents a decline over previous decades. In 1994, 80 percent supported the death penalty. The Pew Research Center says support for the death penalty is at its lowest since the early 1970s.

  In Louisiana's current legislative session, at least some leading conservatives are seriously reconsidering their support for the death penalty. In an April interview with Gambit, House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Mack said he, too, might be changing his mind.

  "Sometimes, you don't realize something until it hits you in the face," Mack said. "While I can't say I've changed my position, I can tell you I'm thinking about it. And that's what debate is about ... it allows you to consider opinions of people around you that you normally might not have.

   "As times change, opinions evolve."

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