BATON ROUGE, La. — A House committee on Wednesday rejected a bill, 11-4, to abolish the death penalty.
Rep. Kyle M. Green, Jr., D-Marrero, presented House Bill 228 to the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice, citing the “racial bend” toward African Americans, the financial benefits to the state and the risk of wrongful conviction in his arguments for abolishing the death penalty.
“It is my personal belief that the death penalty is a barbaric practice that has no place in a modern, civilized society,” Green said. “It is a punishment that is irreversible, final and often applied unfairly.”
Green said the death penalty has been shown to be racially biased because people of color are more likely to be sentenced to death than white people. He said Louisiana has the highest rate of per capita death sentences in the U.S. and that minorities make up a disproportionate number of those sentences.
Green added that it costs the state almost $6 million per year to administer the death penalty. Today, there are 55 people on death row in Louisiana.
“Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Louisiana has exonerated 11 individuals off of death row who were wrongfully convicted of capital crimes,” Green said. “These individuals were nearly put to death for the crimes that they did not commit.”
Rep. Raymond E. Garofalo, Jr., R- Chalmette, voted in opposition of the bill, expressing his belief that the death penalty does act as a deterrent for murder.
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, the vice chairman of the committee, voted in opposition along with the Republican majority.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, urged the Legislature in April to abolish the death penalty, saying that it should not be considered part of a pro-life agenda. Only one person has been executed by the state since 2002, and that was in 2010.
Many individuals who testified in support of Rep. Green’s bill referenced religious beliefs as a reason for opposing the death penalty.
Ralph Capitelli, who has been practicing law for almost 50 years, testified that he used to be a supporter of the death penalty but has changed his opinion because he believes it does not work.
Capitelli said that the years that lapse between the conviction and the execution of the perpetrator causes suffering for the victims’ families. “Justice delayed is truly justice denied,” Capitelli said.
Shareef Cousin, who was sentenced to death at age 16 in New Orleans before becoming the 77th person to be exonerated from death row in the U.S., testified in support of the bill.
“I come before you to ask that you abolish the death penalty,” Cousin said. “And I’m going to keep asking that until anyone can demonstrate to me the infallibility of human judgment.”
Like others who opposed the bill, Tony Clayton, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District west of Baton Rouge, said the death penalty has nothing to do with race but with the deterrence of heinous murders.
“The murder rates in this state are so high now that if you advertise that you’re taking the death penalty off the table, these guys will celebrate because they read,” Clayton said.
John Sinquefield, the state’s chief deputy attorney general, said that if Louisiana becomes the only state in the Deep South without the death penalty, it would become “a magnet for pedophile killers, serial killers, gang-related killers.”
Rep. Alonzo Knox, D- New Orleans, said his position on the death penalty changed recently.
He said the possibility of executing an innocent person is too high of a risk.
Rep. C. Denise Marcelle D- Baton Rouge sided with Rep. Knox. She voted for the bill along with Rep. Marcus Anthony Bryant, D-New Iberia, and the committee’s chairman, Rep. Joseph A. Marino III, I-Gretna.