Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. If some state lawmakers have their way, Louisiana will become the 20th state — but they face strong opposition. Some district attorneys and sheriffs say the death penalty is a deterrent as well as leverage to convince those accused of capital crimes to plead to lesser but still severe charges.
Senate Bill 142 would abolish the death penalty effective Aug. 1, but it would not apply to the more than 70 people currently on death row in Louisiana. House Bill 10 would mandate life in prison without parole for people convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree rape or treason. Last week, a Senate committee approved SB 142 by a 6-1 vote, sending it to the full Senate.
SB 142 is authored by state Sen. Dan Claitor — a Republican and former prosecutor — who says the death penalty has failed as a deterrent. The House bill is by state Rep. Terry Landry, a Democrat from Acadiana who is a retired Louisiana State Police officer. "Having both served in the criminal justice system," Claitor said in a statement, "we understand the practical aspects of this issue and, both being Catholics, share the same moral impetus."
Death penalty opponents raise moral as well as fiscal arguments, and convincingly so.
Death penalty opponents raise moral as well as fiscal arguments, and convincingly so. During last week's Senate committee hearing, Louisiana Public Defender James Dixon told lawmakers that since 2008, the state has spent more than $91 million defending capital cases. In that time, he said, only one man has been executed — and he volunteered for lethal injection after waiving his right to appeal.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 158 people sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated by evidence of innocence since 1973 — 11 of them in Louisiana. During the committee hearing, former Caddo Parish prosecutor Marty Stroud told of a man he convicted of murder who spent 30 years on death row before being exonerated. When the man finally was released, he died of cancer a short time later. Stroud, once a death penalty advocate, now supports Claitor's bill.
The death penalty already is in decline in Louisiana, as it is across the rest of the country, according to DPIC statistics. The state has executed 28 convicts since 1976, but only one in the last nine years.
The lone dissenting vote in the Senate committee was that of state Sen. Mack "Bodi" White, R-Central, who said, "It's not my job to forgive people who commit murders." True, but that sentiment ignores the 11 Louisianans who have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die. Moreover, if the death penalty were a deterrent, Louisiana wouldn't have America's highest murder rate.
Claitor's bill is sure to face opposition going forward, but the facts and testimonies presented last week make a strong case — morally, fiscally and spiritually — for taking a long look at our state's checkered history with the death penalty and joining the growing list of states that have abolished it.