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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bill to kill Louisiana’s death penalty passes committee, heads to Senate floor

Posted By on Tue, Apr 25, 2017 at 8:00 PM

State Sen. Dan Claitor, a Republican and a former prosecutor, wrote Senate Bill 142, which would abolish the death penalty in Louisiana.
  • State Sen. Dan Claitor, a Republican and a former prosecutor, wrote Senate Bill 142, which would abolish the death penalty in Louisiana.

When former prosecutor Marty Stroud began his career in Caddo Parish, his colleagues had a nickname for him: "fire eater." Stroud was notoriously tough, and well-known for his staunch support of the death penalty.

That’s all changed now, he told members of the Louisiana Senate’s Judiciary C Committee on Tuesday. He said the tide turned after his prosecution of Glenn Ford, who spent nearly 30 years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.

“After the death verdict, myself and our team went out and celebrated the night away, comfortable with what I had accomplished,” Stroud recalled. “There was only one problem. The defendant was not guilty of the crime.”

Stroud, his voice at times cracking with emotion, relayed his story during a hearing Tuesday over Senate Bill 142, which calls for the abolition of the death penalty in Louisiana. It was written by Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor, a former prosecutor himself, and a Republican.

After nearly two hours of testimony, the hearing advanced 6-1 to the Senate floor, where it is expected to face substantial opposition from some law enforcement leaders and victim advocacy groups.

On Tuesday, Stroud said he’s haunted by the memory of Ford, whom he begged for forgiveness before the former inmate died of cancer shortly after he was exonerated, leaving death row with nothing but $20 and an apology from the state.

Ford didn’t forgive him, he said. And the prosecutor understood why.

“I hope when the time comes God has more mercy on me than I did on Mr. Ford,” Stroud said. “But i really don’t deserve it.”

Others are tormented — for different reasons. Michelle Ghetti, a Baton Rouge-based attorney and law professor at Southern University, sat next to her sobbing daughter Christie Battaglia as she implored the Senate committee to keep the death penalty in place.

She recalled years of mental and physical torture inflicted upon her by her former husband, whom she fled in the middle of the night, for the safety of herself and her children, after he put her in the hospital.

The attorney told senators she had good reason to run: John Battaglia, her former husband, would years later put his new wife on speakerphone and make her listen as he executed the two daughters they shared.

Now, the two say that abolition of the death penalty would mean murderers like him have more opportunity to inflict anguish upon victims.

“He’s sitting on death row in Texas right now,” Ghetti said “The main thing he’s thinking of right now is getting out to kill me.”

If the two-hour testimony on Tuesday was any indication, the bill’s advancement will be wrought with raw and conflicting emotions as it advances through the legislature, perhaps reflection of a society that has long been deeply divided when it comes to matters of capital punishment.

Claitor’s bill is one of two authored this session that calls for an end to capital punishment. Rep.Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, authored House Bill 10, which also would mandate life in prison without the possibility of parole for defendants convicted of first degree murder, first degree rape or treason.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the national Death Penalty Information Center, has said this session marks a “significant” bipartisan move in a red state. He also says that trends nationwide point toward waning support for capital punishment, though the country remains divided on the issue.

Among those advocating for abolition nationwide are church leaders. Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the book Dead Man Walking, is a famous example. During Tuesday’s hearing, others reiterated her concern over the sacred nature of human life, including Houma-based Bishop Shelton Fabre.
Others have brought up financial issues. Both Landry and state Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, are among those who have publicly criticized the cost of the death penalty, a subject brought up at length on Tuesday.

Louisiana Public Defender James Dixon told lawmakers that since 2008, the state has spent more than $91 million to defend capital cases. In that time, he added, only one man — Gerald Bordelon — has been executed, and he volunteered for lethal injection after waiving his right to appeal.

Nick Trenticosta, a death penalty lawyer, said there have been only 28 executions in Louisiana since 1977, even though 242 people were sentenced to death. The statistics make the Pelican State No. 1 in leading the reversal rate for capital sentences nationwide, he said.

In that time, too, he added, there have been 11 exonerations. The most recent decision in Louisiana was handed down earlier in April, when the state decided not to retry Rodricus Crawford after the state Supreme Court found that the 28-year-old Shreveport native had been wrongfully convicted of killing his sick infant son.

But Ghetti said that between 2000 and 2015 there were 8,415 murders in Louisiana, and only 32 people had received the death penalty. The rate of those who received the death penalty was less than 1 percent, she said.

Ricky Babin, a district attorney in Ascension Parish, also underscored that the death penalty is “extremely rare,” reserved only for the worst of the worst cases.

“These are the most heinous and most aggravating crimes you can imagine,” he said.

Both Babin and Ghetti also said they worry murderers already on death row would be released because the courts would find new leniency, though Claitor has underscored that his bill would not apply to the 73 inmates in Louisiana already on death row.

If the legislation became law, it would take effect Aug. 1.

Before the committee voted, state Sen. Mack “Bodi" White, a Republican from Central, also voiced his opposition.

"It's not my job to forgive the people who commit murders. That's for the family," White said, shortly before voting “no” to the committee leader’s proposition. "It's my job to represent the 130,000 people who sent me up here.”

— An earlier version of this story misstated the vote total in the committee.

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