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September 6, 2009

Detailed examination of the death penalty in Louisiana

LA deathThe Shreveport Times today has this effective article, headlined "Louisiana death penalty: an eye for an eye or ineffective?," which provides a detailed examination of the death penalty in Louisiana.  The paper indicates that this piece is only "the first in a series of stories by The Times about Louisiana's death penalty" and that in future articles it "will explore reasons for an apparent slowdown of executions, the costs of seeking the death penalty and the increasing number of death row inmates who are exonerated of their crimes and those whose sentences are overturned." Here are excerpts from this first piece:

The last execution in Louisiana was in May 2002. Leslie Dale Martin was put to death by lethal injection for the 1991 rape and killing of a 19-year-old college student. No other execution is scheduled, said Pam Laborde, Louisiana Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

Of the 27 men put to death since Louisiana reinstated the death penalty in 1979, 18 were executed between 1983 and 1988.  Seven more were put to death during the '90s and just two were executed since 2000.

That mirrors a national trend. There have been 1,171 executions nationwide since 1976. The annual number has steadily dropped from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 37 executions last year, the Death Penalty Information Center reports.

"Louisiana was one of the most active death penalty states in the first 10 years after the death penalty was reinstated," [Professor Burk] Foster said. "Then it began to slow down. When we switched from electrocution to lethal injection it slowed down even more."

The reasons for that trend are varied, but better, more qualified legal representation for death row defendants has contributed to a lull in executions and an increase in exonerations and sentences being reversed, Foster said.

Since 2007, 11 men, not including those exonerated, have been taken off death row for a variety of reasons, the DOC reports. Most have seen their death sentences reversed and were resentenced to life in prison....

As a result of those and other factors, prosecutors are seeking death sentences less frequently. Faced with higher costs, the need for a unanimous jury verdict and a lengthy, expensive appeals process, they instead are opting for life sentences with no parole. Today there are 4,280 life inmates in Louisiana's state prisons.

An estimated 111 death sentences were meted out in 2008 across the country — part of a continual decline since 1998. In Louisiana, nearly half of the inmates on death row were sent there by three parishes — East Baton Rouge, Caddo and Jefferson. Between 2000 and 2008, those same parishes also had the most death row commitments in the state. Orleans Parish, which has the highest per capita murder rate in the nation, had not sentenced anyone to death in at least 12 years until August.

"There are parts of Louisiana that are very pro-death, but more than half the parishes in this state have never returned a death penalty," said Richard Bourke, director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center in New Orleans. "The death penalty in this state is driven by a small number of individually, locally-elected officials."

September 6, 2009 at 11:04 AM | Permalink

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