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Death penalty upheld as Louisiana House panel blocks move to abolish it

A move to abolish the death penalty[1] in Louisiana has been dropped in the Legislature. A House committee on Wednesday (May 17) killed a bill to end capital punishment[2], dooming a similar bill in the Senate.

Louisiana state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, foreground, and Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, engage in debate with members of the House Committee on Criminal Justice over a proposed ban on the death penalty. (Photo by Sarah Gamard, Manship School News Service)

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice narrowly defeated House Bill 101[3] by Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, which would have eliminated the death penalty for all people convicted after Aug. 1 of capital crimes if voters agreed to the abolition. The measure failed on an 8-9 vote. In light of that decision, Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, is pulling a similar proposal that is pending in the Senate. Claitor’s Senate Bill 142[4] was the same as Landry’s bill but did not require a referendum.

“This is the toughest thing I have ever done in my life,” said Landry, a former State Police[5] superintendent who also served two years in the military during the Vietnam War. Neither bill was meant to affect the 72 people already on death row in Louisiana. Both bills would have kept their death sentences in place.

The Louisiana District Attorneys Association, Louisiana Sheriffs Association and Louisiana Chiefs of Police opposed Landry’s bill. District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut of St. John the Baptist Parish[6] told the House committee that the bill would affect a capital punishment case she is prosecuting against defendants accused of murdering two sheriff’s deputies and wounding two other deputies. One slain deputy’s relative also testified. The Louisiana Conference of Catholic[7] Bishops supported Landry’s bill and had been lobbying legislators for it. Ray Krone, an innocent man who had been on death row in Arizona, also testified for the bill. In 2002, Krone was released from prison after DNA testing showed he hadn’t committed the crime that sent him to death row. Landry’s bill failed in part because Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, surprisingly voted against it. Pylant, a former Franklin Parish[8] sheriff, was listed on the Legislature’s website as a co-sponsor of the bill. Had he voted for the bill, it would have passed the committee to move to the full House, and Claitor might have moved forward with his Senate bill.

Rep. Steve Pylant

Pylant spoke in support of Claitor’s bill in a Senate committee April 25, and he has given several news media interviews where he explained why he was co-sponsoring Landry’s legislation. “I think certain crimes should be punishable by death,” Pylant told The Associated Press in April. “But the fact is we’re not enforcing it. We spend millions of dollars on death penalty appeals, and we claim we can’t get the medicines to do it. … Whether you’re for capital punishment or not, it seems like at some point common sense ought to take hold. In an interview Wednesday, Pylant repeated those sentiments. But he said he got involved with Landry’s legislation only to bring attention to the fact that Louisiana isn’t executing people quickly enough. “If I hadn’t put my name on it, you wouldn’t be out here talking to me,” Pylant told reporters after the vote. Louisiana has executed only one person since 2002. Gerald Bordelon had waived his right to more appeals in 2010 and was executed then.

The death penalty is expensive: Louisiana spends $9 million to $10 million annually on defense counsel for Louisiana’s 73 inmates sentenced to death. That doesn’t count the costs for prosecutors and courts — or local parish expenditures on capital defense. Pylant said Louisiana could be executing more people if officials prioritized it. He pointed out that Arkansas executed four people in eight days in April. Arkansas initially scheduled eight executions in April, before the drugs it used to kill people were to expire, but four executions were put on hold by legal challenges. Louisiana, Arkansas and several other states are having trouble acquiring drugs for lethal injection because the drug companies no longer want to sell them to state for capital punishment.

“We say we can’t get the drugs to execute with. Arkansas has executed four or five people in the last month,” Pylant said. “So something’s not right. The powers that be apparently don’t have the will to carry out the executions.”

Claitor’s bill to abolish the death penalty won 6-1 backing from a Senate committee only hours after the first Arkansas’ execution took place. And Pylant became a co-sponsor on Landry’s legislation well before any of the Arkansas executions took place. Pylant said what happened in Arkansas didn’t influence his vote on Landry’s bill on Wednesday or change his position. But he returned to the Arkansas executions more than once in an interview.

“We need to start executing people,” he said. “They said we can’t get the pharmaceuticals. Well, why can other people get them when we can’t?”

“We don’t want to give the lethal injection? Well, we’ve got firing squads. We’ve got the electric chair. We’ve got other things,” he said. If Louisiana wanted to use a method other than lethal injection to carry out executions, it would require a change to the law. No lawmaker in 2017 brought legislation to change the method.

Here’s how the committee voted Wednesday:

Abolish death penalty

  • John Bagneris, D-New Orleans
  • Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge
  • Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace
  • Ted James, D-Baton Rouge
  • Terry Landry, D-New Iberia
  • Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge
  • Joe Marino, no party-Gretna
  • John Stefanski, R-Crowley

Against abolition

  • Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville
  • Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City
  • Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles
  • Chris Hazel, R-Pineville
  • Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs
  • Frank Howard, R-Many
  • Sherman Mack, R-Albany
  • Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport
  • Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro.

References

  1. ^ death penalty (topics.nola.com)
  2. ^ capital punishment (topics.nola.com)
  3. ^ House Bill 101 (www.legis.la.gov)
  4. ^ Senate Bill 142 (www.legis.la.gov)
  5. ^ State Police (topics.nola.com)
  6. ^ St. John the Baptist Parish (topics.nola.com)
  7. ^ Catholic (topics.nola.com)
  8. ^ Franklin Parish (topics.nola.com)

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