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.