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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Louisiana Legislature to consider banning the death penalty in this year's session

Posted By on Thu, Apr 6, 2017 at 4:11 PM

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The Louisiana State Legislature is slated to consider a ban on the death penalty in this year's legislative session, after three former law enforcement officials introduced bills in both the state Senate and House of Representatives.

Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, the chairman of the senate’s Judiciary C committee and former prosecutor in New Orleans, filed one of the bills.

He collaborated on the initiative, he said, with Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia. Landry, who was a state police superintendent under former Gov. Mike Foster, wrote another bill with support from Rep. Steven Pylant, R-Winnsboro, a former sheriff of Franklin Parish.

Both Claitor’s Senate Bill 142 and Landry’s House Bill 101 would eliminate the death penalty and instead mandate life in prison without the possibility of parole for defendants convicted of first degree murder, first degree rape or treason.

The filings mark what Robert Dunham, executive director of the national Death Penalty Information Center, calls a “significant” bipartisan move in a red state as lawmakers in Louisiana follow trends nationwide in waning their support for capital punishment.

“It used to be that liberal Democratic representatives would introduce bills to abolish the death penalty and they stood a great chance of success in states that were majority Democratic in the legislature,” Dunham told Gambit. “Now the political environment has changed. We are in the midst of major climate change about the death penalty.”

Not everyone is in support. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Office, said his network of district attorneys would be opposing the bills if they progressed through state legislature.

“We think that despite the delayed nature of execution, the death penalty has some value in its deterrent effect, and that some cases merit it,” Adams told Gambit.

Adams’ viewpoint — that the death penalty should be instituted for moral reasons, and that its existence serves to deter future violent crime — echoes one that’s long been represented in conservative Louisiana. In 2015, then-Caddo Parish District Attorney Dale Cox said Louisiana "should kill more people."

Last year, however, local death penalty experts and lawmakers said the tide was starting to turn.
Both Landry and Pylant are among those who say their viewpoint has “evolved." Landry has publicly criticized the cost of the death penalty, and has questioned whether the law actually makes residents in Louisiana safer.

Pylant expressed similar views during a House committee meeting last year, as Gov. John Bel Edwards attempted to close what was then a $600 million state budget shortfall. The conservative lawmaker said he had long had supported the death penalty as a moral issue, but was shifting his viewpoint given the policy’s fiscal burden.

"I think we've gotten to a place in a society that we live in that we have regressed," Pylant said.

In an email to Gambit, Claitor said he had witnessed the inefficiency and excessive costs of the death penalty “program” as a prosecutor under Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr.

“I am well aware of the need to create an environment that is hostile to violent crime and criminals,” Claitor said. “Yet, the death penalty has failed as deterrence to such horrendous criminal activity. Moreover, the death penalty is rarely utilized in Louisiana, and, when it is, the costs of appeals in these cases are extraordinarily burdensome to our law-abiding taxpayers.”

The bipartisan Capital Punishment Fiscal Impact Study Commission is slated to come out with a study outlining comprehensive costs of the death penalty in Louisiana next year. The Louisiana Department of Corrections estimates, however, that taxpayers pay roughly $1.52 million a year to house death row inmates.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board also reports spending about one-third of its annual budget on capital cases. During the last fiscal year, it spent $9.5 million on death penalty defense for less than 40 cases. The spending has drawn ire from both public defenders and the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, as public defense faces a constitutional crisis in Louisiana stemming from widespread budget shortfalls.
On Thursday, the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the death penalty, said the legislation is “consistent with” a 2016 statewide poll showing Louisianans prefer life sentences over the death penalty as a punishment for first degree murder by a 2-to-1 margin.

If passed, either law to eliminate the death penalty would apply to any sentences handed down after Aug. 1. It would not be applied retroactively, meaning inmates currently on death row still wouldbe eligible for execution.

As of early April, there were 73 men and one woman housed on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

Louisiana last executed an inmate in January 2010, when Gerald Bordelon, who was accused of strangling his 12-year-old stepdaughter to death, volunteered to get lethal injection. Louisiana hasn’t executed anyone who has challenged their death sentence since 2002.

Louisiana is one of 31 states that allow the death penalty. Another 19 states have passed laws abolishing capital punishment and four — Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington — have given up the practice because of a gubernatorial moratorium.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Delaware was the last state where the death penalty was banned, after the Delaware Supreme Court stuck down the state's death sentencing statute in 2016.

Legislatures in two other states have voted to dump the death penalty in the past five years: Maryland in 2013 and Connecticut in 2012.

On Tuesday, Claitor said he thought Louisiana might have a “real chance” of becoming the next state in line to abolish capital punishment, given the amount of support he’s seen since filing his bill in late March.

“The response I have received from the public regarding my effort to repeal the death penalty in our state has been surprising, overwhelming, and gratifying,” Claitor said. “If this public reaction is indicative, there is a real chance this can become reality in this session of the Louisiana Legislature.”

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