Thursday, April 18, 2024

Legislature advances execution, other crime bills Monday

by BIZ Magazine

Claire Sullivan | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—Lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that would expand execution methods to include electrocution and nitrogen gas, making it one of more than a dozen proposals just one vote away from the governor’s desk.

Gov. Jeff Landry vowed in the open of his special legislative session on crime that he would put victims first, but as hours of emotional testimony illuminated in a Senate judiciary committee Monday, not all of them agree on how best to do that.

Besides the death penalty bill, lawmakers advanced a host of other legislation through the day that would toughen the criminal justice system. If passed by the other chamber and signed by Landry, these proposals, among others, would:

  • mostly abolish parole (House Bill 9),
  • cut good-behavior sentence reductions to 15% from 65% (House Bill 10),
  • give judges more discretion in sanctioning people for parole violations (House Bill 11),
  • make some juvenile court and criminal records available online (House Bill 1),
  • make it harder to sue police officers (House Bill 2),
  • increase penalties for carjacking (House Bill 7) and
  • lower the age to be tried as an adult from 18 to 17 (Senate Bill 3).

Few bills have elicited as much emotion among lawmakers and survivors as the one that would expand the ways the state can kill those condemned to death. Louisiana has not executed someone since 2010, in large part because of difficulties obtaining the concoction of drugs needed for lethal injections. 

The proposal, House Bill 6, would add nitrogen gas and electrocution to those methods and shield from the public the companies providing the lethal-injection drugs. It advanced 5-1 in Senate Judiciary C, where a mother relived the shooting death of her 11-month-old son during a 1995 carjacking in New Orleans. She wants the death sentence imposed in 1996 to finally be carried out.

“Why are the rights of murderers more important than the victims?” asked the mom, Danna NaChampassak. “Why do they get a second chance?”

At times, lawmakers criticized those in opposition to the bill for testifying at all, suggesting they valued murderers more than victims. “There’s another place and time that you can come do this — not today,” said Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen. 

But among the opponents were those who knew the issue intimately, including one son whose mother was killed in 2000. He asked for mercy for her killer, who also sits on death row, and urged the committee not to cause more needless death. 

“What are you doing that actually helps us?” asked the son, Brett Malone. “Because killing people is not gonna help.”

The two survivors, a mother and a son, represent the divide over what justice and healing look like for those who have lost someone to violence.

For NaChampassak, pushing for the execution to be carried out is about justice, not vengeance. 

She described the terror she felt as Clifford Deruise pointed a gun at her two children, sitting in their carseats, as he blocked her from moving. He shot her son in the head and put four bullets through her body. Her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter caught stray bullets.

She had only one arm to hold her baby boy Etienne with as he died in the hospital, because the other had two bullets stuck in it. Her voice was choked with emotion as she recounted her story, and committee chairman Sen. John C. “Jay” Morris III, R-West Monroe, wiped tears from his eyes with a white cloth.

“He wanted to live. He really did, like everybody here in this room” she said. “You know, you take someone’s life, you just don’t deserve to be here anymore. Let him make peace with God. Let the murderer make peace with God.”

Her family lived in New Orleans for three generations, but after the loss, she left for Florida. She traveled back to Louisiana on her own dime to ask lawmakers to pass the bill.

Her mother and brother, Sandy and Michael Riches, testified alongside her. They all wore lanyards on their necks with pictures of Etienne. 

Michael Riches felt the death sentence handed to his nephew’s killer was partially a lie.

“It’s extremely disrespectful to all those involved with that process to try and change what’s already been decided,” he said.

For Brett Malone, whose mother Mary Ann Shaver Malone was killed, his decades of pain have led him down a different path of advocacy. He wants Jeremiah Manning, the man convicted of her kidnapping and killing, to live.

“We know that killing him will not bring my mother back nor will it repair any of the harm that was done by his actions,” Malone said.

Malone does not want more anguish and grief to be added to that already endured by his family. He wondered out loud what other execution methods the Legislature might consider next: Crucifixion? Lynching? The guillotine? Drawing and quartering?

With those questions, Malone asked lawmakers to add a provision to the bill that would require the governor and all those who vote for it to be selected at random to carry out the executions.

“Be a man or woman enough to do what it is that you are voting to be done,” Malone said. “Be the ones who push the plunger of poison and hold the person down as they violently convulse, the ones who flip the switch that fries the person’s brain and the ones who suffocate the life out of another human being.

“See, in the quest to kill evil, perhaps you yourselves are becoming evil.”

Piper Naudin and Elizabeth White contributed to this report.

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