The entrance to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. (Photo credit: Jarvis DeBerry/Louisiana Illuminator)
A legislative effort to eliminate the death penalty as a form of criminal punishment in Louisiana failed Wednesday, despite the state not having executed anyone involuntarily in over 20 years.
Advocates for ending capital punishment stressed that 11 death row inmates have been exonerated or had their convictions reversed, compared with 28 executed, since Louisiana reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The probability of an error-prone prosecution provides ample reason to end the death penalty, they argued.
Proponents of ending executions also made religious appeals to the conservative-dominated House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, noting supporting the death penalty doesn’t sync with “pro-life” Christian values.
“It’s easy to have someone else carry out that punishment,” Rep. Kyle Green, D-Marrero, said before the vote on his House Bill 228. “I would tell you you’re not pro-death penalty until you’re willing to carry out that punishment yourself.”
It wasn’t enough to sway members, who rejected the proposal in a 4-11 vote. Opponents insisted, even though it’s seldom used, the death penalty is an effective crime deterrent that should remain accessible to district attorneys.
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Defense costs scrutinized
State Public Defender Rémy Starnes, who’s officially neutral on the proposal, appeared before the committee to share information. He pegged the annual cost for his agency to defend capital cases at around $7.7 million. If that money could be reallocated to other needs, it would be “the biggest step we could take toward the solvency” of the state’s public defender system short of some miracle funding source, Starnes said.
Louisiana public defenders handle roughly 80% of all defendants in the state, or approximately 146,000 clients a year, according to Starnes. Excluding the money needed to continue representation for current death row inmates, he said eliminating capital punishment would save the state $6.2 million annually that could be used elsewhere within his cash-strapped agency.
Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, took issue with Starnes’ fiscal analysis, adding that she had no problem with appropriating $7 million a year to fund the death penalty. She criticized the state public defender’s office for hiring expensive “boutique law firms” to handle capital cases. Starnes said he hasn’t hired any such firms since he took charge three years ago, which led Villio to question why so much was spent on the three death penalty trials it handled in that time.
A former prosecutor, Villio also questioned the public defenders’ practice of designating all first-degree murder charges as capital cases before a district attorney declares whether they will pursue the death penalty. This provides more work for the “boutique” firms, even if prosecutors don’t pursue a capital case, she said.
Starnes said he’s modified that procedure since assuming his role a few years ago. Now, local public defense attorneys are assigned to murder cases, and private contracted lawyers are brought on only once a prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty.
Death row exonerees testify
Among several proponents of Green’s bill that committee members heard from was Shareef Cousin. As a 16-year-old in 1995, he was mistakenly identified as the suspect in a fatal shooting in New Orleans, convicted of murder the following year and sentenced to death.
The submission of evidence withheld at trial led to Cousin being paroled from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 2005, making him the 77th person exonerated from death row in the United States. The fact that nearly 30% of death row inmates in Louisiana have been exonerated over 47 years is reason enough to end capital punishment, he said.
“Can you tell me right now that those numbers are fair, that we can continue to perpetuate a system with those numbers alone?” Cousin asked committee members.
Ryan Matthews was 17 when he was sentenced to death for a 1997 Jefferson Parish murder he did not commit. His sister, Monique Coleman, told the committee an inexperienced public defender contributed to his conviction, which was overturned when DNA evidence on a mask worn by the actual shooter cleared Matthews. He spent five years at Angola before he became the country’s 115th person exonerated from death row.
“We are collateral damage of the death penalty,” Coleman said, who explained her brother was attending his daughter’s graduation Wednesday.
“What you see is the trauma that our families and those death row exonerees have experienced,” she continued. “They are often released back into society with no significant or comprehensive reintegration program. Two decades after Ryan’s release, we are still reintegrating Ryan.”
Corey Williams of Shreveport told the committee how he was sentenced to death at age 16 for a 1998 murder he did not commit, despite having an intellectual disability. His sentence was later reduced to life in prison because of his mental capacity.
Williams’ conviction was eventually thrown out when it was learned a prosecutor had altered summaries of witness interviews, which had actually cleared Williams, to make him look guilty.
Judge Ross Foote of Rapides Parish, now retired, told lawmakers how he had originally sentenced a 17-year-old to death until he was made aware the defendant had an IQ of 67, a score in the mildly mentally impaired or delayed range.
“Is that who we want to be executing?” Foote asked the committee.
‘They’re never leaving Angola’
Tony Clayton, district attorney for Iberville, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge, shared graphic accounts from rape and murder trials he has prosecuted with the committee to express his opposition to Green’s proposal.
Clayton, who is Black, also took issue with proponents who pointed out racial disparities in the inordinate number of people of color sentenced to death compared with white defendants.
“I’ve walked and been on many crime scenes,” Clayton said, “and when a mother cries, she’s not crying Black tears or white tears. She’s crying tears of pain behind these senseless murders.”
He also took issue with arguments on the high cost of trying capital cases that can span years and the expense of incarcerating condemned people indefinitely.
“You want to save money? Take them off death row and put them in general population,” Clayton said. “They’re never leaving Angola.”
Also representing the opposition was John Sinquefield, Louisiana’s chief deputy attorney general and a former prosecutor in East Baton Rouge Parish. He said 27 other states and the U.S. military have the death penalty, although three — California, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have placed moratoriums on executions.
Louisiana would be the only state in the Deep South without capital punishment if Green’s bill was approved, and the state would “become a magnet for pedophile killers, serial killers, gang-related killers,” Sinquefield said.
Although they didn’t address the committee, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the anti-abortion Louisiana Family Forum were also opposed to Green’s legislation.
The final person to speak in opposition to the bill was Wayne Guzzardo, father of one of the two employees killed during the 1995 robbery of a Baton Rouge restaurant. Todd Wessinger was sentenced to death for fatally shooting Guzzardo’s daughter, Stephanie, manager of the Calendar’s location, and cook David Breakwell. Another employee was also shot in the back and survived. Wessinger’s gun jammed when he tried to shoot a fourth worker.
Wessinger, who was condemned to die in 1997, remains one of 62 people on death row in Louisiana, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The last person put to death in Louisiana was in 2010, when Gerald Bordelon waived his right to appeals and asked to be executed. Ten years earlier, he kidnapped and killed his 12-year-old stepdaughter.
Prior to Bordelon, Leslie Dale Martin died by lethal injection in 2002 for the 1991 rape and murder of a 19-year-old McNeese State student.
One of the more poignant moments of the hearing came when committee member Rep. Vanessa LaFleur, D-Baton Rouge, informed Guzzardo she had gone to high school with his daughter and remembered her fondly.
LaFleur, who told the committee that her father was a murder victim, was the lone Democrat who joined all of the Republicans on the committee in voting against Green’s bill.
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