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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LPR

Louisiana House votes to expand death penalty, make youth court records public, cut parole

Louisiana death row prisoners could be electrocuted and gassed to death under a bill approved by the state House, one of several pieces of Gov. Jeff Landry’s ambitious crime agenda that cleared a key hurdle Friday.

The House approved House Bill 6, which would add nitrogen gas hypoxia and electrocution to the state's approved execution methods, on a 71-29 vote, sending it to the Senate. That bill also proposes criminal penalties for people who reveal information about pharmaceutical companies who supply the state lethal injection drugs.

The bill’s movement to the Senate marks a victory for Landry, a Republican and vocal supporter of the death penalty, and brings the state closer to executing death row prisoners for the first time since 2010.

"I know that this administration is ready and is looking for the tools to carry out executions," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, told his House colleagues. "I'm giving them that tool today.”

Also, on Friday — the fifth day of a special session Landry convened to reshape the state’s legal system to address crime — the House backed a slew of bills to limit opportunities for early release from prison and to toughen penalties for parole violators.

Those are in keeping with Landry's push for “truth in sentencing” initiatives, aimed at reducing the gap between court-ordered sentences and time served in prison.

All the legislation met stiff criticism from House Democrats, who face two-thirds supermajorities in both the House and Senate and could do little to halt the bills when it came time to vote. To argue against the death penalty bill, Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, invoked a number of cases from recent history where Black men have been wrongly executed or lynched.

“I oppose this bill... for the Emmett Tills of the world, and the countless and endless others who did not get that presumption of innocence,” he said, referencing the 14-year-old Black Chicago boy who was kidnapped and murdered by White men in 1955 in the Mississippi Delta.

Death penalty advances

Landry and his allies have said that restarting the death penalty will deliver justice to victims' family members who would like to see the people convicted of slaying their loved ones executed.

The state entered contracts with those families, Landry and supporters argue, when judges and juries handed up capital convictions. Those contracts have remained unfulfilled since 2010 when the state last put someone to death.

Gerald Bordelon voluntarily chose to be executed that year for the murder of his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

Opposing Muscarello's bill are a slate of religious groups, Democratic lawmakers and some victims, including Brett Malone, who has devoted time to saving the life of the death row prisoner who killed his mother.

"Thirty years ago, when I was chief counsel for DOC, we did things very differently," Annette Viator, former chief legal counsel for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said in a statement. "We understood that the reputation of the state was on the line, not only pertaining to the method of execution, but also to the details of how, when and who was involved. The proposed legislation seems to ignore the precautions we always took."

House Democrats pushed back on the bill’s secrecy provisions, with little success. Amendments they proposed to require testing of lethal injection drugs before they’re used and to let prisoners know the identity of companies that sell the drugs used in executions were both shot down. Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, did get support for an amendment that would bar public officials from profiting off the sale of lethal injection drugs, even as details of the companies involved in them would be sealed.

Democrats also raised concerns about the methods in the bill, describing a first-of-its-kind execution by nitrogen gas in Alabama last month and grisly examples of the ways the electric chair can inflict harm in a prisoner’s last moments.

"Are you aware that electrocutions in the past have literally burned the flesh off of bones?" Rep. Matt Willard, D-New Orleans, asked Muscarello on the House floor.

Muscarello replied that he had heard that detail in committee testimony this week.

Parole opportunities on track to shrink

Democrats similarly raised objections to bills that would mostly eliminate opportunities inmates have to leave prison before serving their full sentences. Those proposals will now go before the Senate.

House Bill 9, which passed in a 71-33 vote, would prevent anyone convicted of a crime as an adult from getting out on parole. It will impact people who commit crimes on or after Aug. 1.

House Bill 10 would require inmates to serve 85% of their sentence before they can be released for good behavior. It would take away so-called “good time” credits earned in pretrial jails. Currently, nonviolent offenders are eligible for release after serving 35% of their sentence.

Under HB 10, inmates could still get additional time shaved off for completing rehabilitative programs. The bill passed the House by a 71-32 vote.

Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, who sponsored the bills, argued they will help ensure the truth in sentencing she and Landry have championed, and that they would “make Louisiana safer.”

Critics of both proposals say they could cause safety issues in prisons and jails by taking away incentives for inmates to behave.

When he took to the House floor to oppose HB 9, Rep. Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria, said he has friends working in corrections who are “terrified because they’re not going to be able to keep the peace in these facilities.”

“If you take the hope from everybody, you’re going to have more bloodshed,” he said.

But Villio contended that law enforcement supported her bills.

“To not adopt these bills is a continued slap in their face…because they keep arresting the same individuals over and over again,” she said.

The House also passed yet another measure, dubbed the “Truth and Transparency in Criminal Justice Act” by Landry’s supporters, that would make public court minutes for youth accused of violent crimes. That bill, HB1, passed 72-30.


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