Louisiana's AG jumps back into federal suit over executions

Posted at 6:15 PM, Aug 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-03 19:15:22-04

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's attorney general is rejoining a long-running legal battle over lethal injections of death row prisoners.

Federal judges overseeing the lawsuit, which challenges the state's execution laws and procedures, have since 2014 put all executions in Louisiana on hold.

State Attorney General Jeff Landry abruptly quit the case last summer, claiming that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards hadn't fought hard enough to restart executions, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported. That came after a state attorney agreed to another delay in the case, saying that litigating it while Louisiana still lacked execution drugs would be "a waste of resources and time."

But with the latest court-ordered halt to executions set to expire in the coming weeks, Landry filed Thursday to rejoin the litigation.

Louisiana's Department of Corrections asked Landry's office to rejoin its legal team last week, despite Landry's repeated attacks accusing prison officials of dragging their feet on executions. Landry's court filing, however, included some criticism of the Edwards administration and the DOC. Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill, a top Landry deputy, wrote that those agencies "have not adequately defended the state against the allegations" in the federal lawsuit.

It's unclear whether Landry's return signals that he has patched up his disagreements with the Edwards administration over how to push forward with executions or whether Landry will clash with the administration in court over the issue.

"We look forward to working with the DOC in both ending this frivolous litigation and commencing executions of the most heinous criminals," Landry said.

The move is the latest chapter in Landry's enthusiastic and unreserved embrace of the death penalty. He has repeatedly challenged the governor to clarify his own views on capital punishment. Edwards has elaborated little, saying only that he will carry out Louisiana's laws, and accused Landry of grandstanding.

Edwards and top prison officials say the state's inability to acquire execution drugs, not a lack of will, has stymied attempts to carry out the death penalty.

An Edwards spokeswoman also noted that Landry's court filings acknowledged that the state likely still lacked the drugs to carry out an execution even if U.S. District Judge Shelly K. Dick, who's presiding over the case, were to lifted the stay on executions.

"Even the Attorney General acknowledges that the state, with or without the stay, cannot carry out any executions because it does not have access to the drugs that would be necessary to complete the state's execution protocol," she said.

The attorney general however argued in his filing that the current lack of lethal-injection drugs is "not a reason to continue to concede to delays in this case."

Dick allowed Landry to add Murrill as an attorney for state prison officials. But Dick asked attorneys for the death row inmates challenging the execution protocols to write additional briefs about whether to allow Landry's office to intervene as a separate party.

Those briefs are due Sept. 4.

Dick extended the order blocking executions at least until after she's ruled on that question.

The state hasn't carried out a death sentence since 2010 and has executed just three inmates over the past two decades.

Prison officials have found the drugs used in lethal injection have become increasingly difficult to acquire, with large drugmakers refusing to sell them for use in executions. Several other states have successfully acquired the drugs from compounding pharmacies, small boutique operations that custom-mix drugs. But compounding pharmacists in Louisiana have refused to mix the drugs for executions, according to affidavits filed by prison officials.

That's at least in part out of fear of protests and negative publicity if their role in making execution drugs is exposed, according to Landry and his deputies. The attorney general pushed a bill in this year's legislative session to blanket the acquisition of execution drugs in thick secrecy. But the proposal, which Edwards indicated he'd likely sign, was ultimately rejected.