By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

A bill repealing capital punishment in Louisiana easily sailed through a Senate committee and is headed to the full floor for discussion.

Fueled by testimony from Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, SB 142, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge, was approved 6-1 by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 25. The bill calls for eliminating the death penalty for any offense committed after July 31. Currently the 74 inmates on death row would not be affected.

Rep. Terry Landry of New Iberia and Rep. Steven Pylant of Winnsboro are introducing the bill in the House.

Bishop Fabre, a native of New Roads, told the committee he was appearing not as a politician or in the name of any political party but as a pastor of souls. He said there are many reasons to abolish the death penalty but added he was there emphasizing that chief among those reasons is the unique beauty and sacredness of all human life, from the first moment of conception to the time of natural death.

“Recognizing that all human life is sacred, I therefore raise my voice along with my brother bishops in stating the importance of abolishing capital punishment in our state, in our nation and in the relatively few places it remains practiced in our world,” Bishop Fabre said, referring to a recent endorsement of the bill by the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops. “In the circumstances of this time in history, and with the availability of other options, such as life imprisonment, the Catholic Church considers the death penalty an offense against the holiness of human life.

“Therefore, the use of the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and in our circumstances. It, sadly, simply perpetuates the cycle of violence in a culture of death that must be transformed into a culture of life.”

Bishop Fabre said it was with a heavy heart and great concern that he is admittedly horrified by the uptick of violence and is also aware of the anger, pain and agony felt by families whose lives have been broken by the violent death of loves ones. He said the church stands with those families and offers assistance in finding hope in spite of their suffering in their search for justice.

However, he said the death penalty can be sought for the purpose of revenge and not justice.

“We should never equate the value of a person’s life and their human dignity with the worst thing they have ever done, no matter how heinous the content of their worst action,” the bishop said. “We must remember that a person’s human dignity is a gift given to them by God and is not something earned or lost through their behavior, no matter how good or bad.”

“For the Catholic community ending the death penalty is not about public policy or even public opinion for that matter. Ending the death penalty in the state of Louisiana is essential in rejecting a culture of death and building a culture of life.”

Committee members spent more then two hours hearing testimony from both sides but appeared to be swayed by some alarming statistics revealed by capital punishment opponents. Rev. Gerard Robinson, pastor of McKowen Missionary Church in Baton Rouge, noted that in the past 40 years, 82 percent of the death penalty cases have been reversed in Louisiana, a number backed up by death penalty lawyer Nick Trenticosta.

Trenticosta said of those reversals, very few prosecutors elected to reseek the death penalty, instead opting for a life sentence, second-degree murder or manslaughter in the subsequent retrial.

Robinson and Trenticosta said Louisiana has the country’s highest number of death penalty reversals in the country. Trenticosta said the state has also sentenced more innocent men to death per capita than any other state.

He said there have been 28 executions in Louisiana since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, but only one in the past 15 years and that was because the inmate waived his right to appeal.

Trenticosta cited judicial error, prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of defense counsel as the main reason for the 133 death penalty reversals.

“We now have a 40-year history of the death penalty,” Trenticosta said. “Administration of the death penalty is plagued with problems, is totally ineffective and expensive. We can expect more of the same results if we continue using the death penalty in Louisiana.”

Sen. Regina Barrow called the number of reversals “alarming,” and said it adds to the importance of the issue.

“Eighty-two percent of error is not a good number, it is not acceptable,” she said. “I am really, truly overwhelmed.”

Attorney James Dixon, a member of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, also cited the expense involving capital punishment cases. He said since 2008 the Public Defender Board has spent more than $91 million in defending capital cases, including trial defense, the appellate process and post conviction.

He said that number does not take into account the costs for the prosecution, law enforcement, court, the municipalities and the Department of Corrections, which has to foot the bill for the additional expense of maintaining inmates on death row.