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Death penalty abolition bill passes panel

BATON ROUGE — A new effort to abolish the state’s death penalty advanced Tuesday with a 4-2 Senate committee vote on a bill proposed by Republican State Sen. Dan Claitor.

Louisiana is one of 31 states that permits capital punishment. Similar legislative efforts to ban the death penalty have failed in recent years.

Under this year’s bill, voters would decide whether to change Louisiana’s constitution to make it illegal to execute criminals for any offense committed on or after January 1, 2021. Judiciary Committee C also passed an amendment that would include the bill on the 2020 presidential ballot for voters to decide.

The bill was filed by Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, the committee’s chairman, and co-authored by Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, and Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who tried to pass a similar bill last year.

In the 2018 legislative session, Morrell’s bill advanced to the Senate floor but was ultimately struck down. Claitor and Landry’s previous proposals to eliminate the death penalty also failed.

At the hearing, Morrell stressed that there have been numerous death row inmates who were later found to be innocent and that the states’ resources to convict someone are infinite but sometimes unjust.

“In order for the death penalty to even be considered as a functional outreach of what government should do, you have to start from the position that you believe government is infallible,” Morrell said. “If you do not hold that government gets it right every single time, then death should not be on the table.”

Landry, a former Louisiana State Police superintendent, said he once supported the death penalty but had a change of heart after spiritual growth.

“I ask you today to look deep into your hearts and to your soul, and is it worth putting an innocent person to death for a crime they did not commit?” Landry asked. “Our communities are not safe because of the death penalty and all we have to do is look at the statistics.”

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, who was also a vocal opponent in last year’s debate, voted against the bill. He contended that “this body can’t judge every case or every person. We set the guidelines for the laws for the state of Louisiana.”

Louisiana’s debate follows the ongoing national discussion on the constitutionality of capital punishment. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided on several death penalty cases, in which the court’s conservative majority upheld states’ rights to expedite the execution of convicted murderers and to reject prisoner’s demands for a painless death.

Drug companies, too, are under scrutiny since they need to make information about lethal drugs public but have also reported shortfalls of the the drugs.

The financial burden of capital cases weighs heavily on the state.

Proponents of the bill argued that the Louisiana Public Defender Board has spent $111 million on death penalty cases since 2008, and only one person has been executed in the state in the past decade.

Race also is an issue. According to LSU School of Public Health professor Peter Scharf, 70 percent of inmates on death row in Louisiana are black. Scharf said that most criminologists believe that deterrence, such as having laws for capital punishment in place, has no effect on murderers.

Since 2000, seven people on death row in Louisiana had been exonerated, and two people have been executed. There have been no executions in the state since 2010.

“The rate of capital punishment has dropped to almost none,” Scharf said. “We haven’t had an execution since 2010, so it’s not like we’re disrupting a lively policy that’s moving.”

“We’re disrupting a dysfunctional policy that’s ending on its own,” he added. “So I think this has a good chance. I think the governor seems like he might be supportive of it.”

In a statement released last month, the governor hedged his position.

“In the time since we last had this conversation, nothing has changed — the drugs are not available, and legislation has not passed to address concerns of drug companies or offer alternative forms of execution,” Edwards said.

Present at the hearing also were Scott M. Perrilloux, the district attorney for Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes, and Perry M. Nicosia, the district attorney for St. Bernard Parish, who spoke publicly against the bill and stressed that they do not consider deterrence but rather the victims when deciding capital cases.

The debate is cloaked in partisan arguments. Earlier in March, one of the state’s top Republicans, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry — who has suggested hangings, firing squads and electrocution in the past — blamed Edwards for putting death penalty cases on hold and not seeing them through.

Landry and Edwards are up for re-election this fall and have argued repeatedly over policy, including criminal justice.

Executions have been halted in Louisiana ever since a federal court order blocking death sentences from being carried out in the state was issued in 2014. While Edwards has pointed to drug shortages as a major obstacle for executions, Landry has accused him of hindering capital punishment.

Photo: Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, shepherded his bill to abolish the death penalty through a Senate committee on Tuesday. (Sarah Gamard / LSU Manship School News Service)

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