This is the bed in the lethal injection room where offenders are executed at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. (Greg Pearson/The Times)
About this series,
This is the first in a series of stories by The Times about Louisiana's death penalty. Over coming months, we 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. We'll also speak with the families of victims and with prosecutors, defense attorneys and others.
If you've got an idea for a related story, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (318) 459-3530.
State comparison of death row demographics
Following is a listing of the numbers of inmates and executions since 1976 in selected states.
Louisiana: 82 / 27
Alabama: 203 / 43
Arkansas: 42 / 27
Mississippi: 60 / 10
Texas: 338 / 439
Nationwide*: 3,297 / 1,171
*As of Sept. 1
Source: Times research and Death Penalty Information Center
Seven were put to sleep permanently by lethal injection.
In all, 94 people found guilty of capital crimes, such as first-degree murder or treason, have been executed in Louisiana since 1941. Eighty-two more, including two women, sit on death row today.
Their impending executions and those of others punished under Louisiana's death penalty have come under the scrutiny of media, victims, lawmakers, activists and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some say the state's capital punishment law, like those of 34 other states, is bound in the biblical tradition that those who take a life may be killed. The death penalty brings justice to victims' families and deters would-be killers, proponents argue.
"Most people believe that some people ought to get the death penalty — there are some crimes that are so bad that the person who commits (them) ought to be given the death penalty, if convicted," said death penalty expert Burk Foster, a former University of Louisiana-Lafayette criminal justice associate professor now teaching in Michigan.
Others insist the law is distorted and ineffective. Eight Louisiana death row inmates have been exonerated of their alleged crimes. More sentences overturned in recent years paired with fewer executions have all but already abolished the state's death penalty, they say.
"It's not as easy to get a death penalty (verdict) and certainly not (easy to) get one at this point," said Sabine District Attorney Don Burkett, who helped put three men on death row while district attorney for DeSoto and Sabine parishes. "I don't know how effective the death penalty is because there are so few being carried out."
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," 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.
At least two men recently taken off death row were put there by Caddo Parish juries. In one case, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled prosecutors made a mistake and ordered a new trial. Robert Coleman, accused of the 2003 slaying of retired minister Julian Brandon during a Blanchard home invasion, is scheduled to again stand trial in April 2010. His girlfriend, Brandy Holmes, also earned a death sentence for her role in the crime.
In the other Caddo case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a sentencing was unconstitutional. Richard L. Davis, who was found guilty and sentenced to death for the rape of a 5-year-old girl, was resentenced to life in prison.
Nationwide, 135 death row inmates have been exonerated, according to Death Penalty Information Center statistics.
Fewer prosecutionsAs 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."
A colorful historyHanging was the means of execution in Louisiana until 1941.
The last man legally hanged in Louisiana was William Landers, who was executed in 1941 — barely six months after he and three other escaped Arkansas convicts killed a posse man sent to capture them.
Jury selection for the quartet's trial was hampered due to public sentiment against giving the death penalty to all four men when it was likely only one, Frank Boyce, actually was responsible for the murder, according to a 2001 article written by Foster.
That's not the only time the state's death penalty has met societal pressure, according to LSU-Shreveport criminal justice professor Bernadette Palombo.
During the penalty trial of Timothy Taylor, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1999 shooting death of a Shreveport car salesman, defense attorneys and his parents pleaded with jurors to spare his life, Palombo said.
A man whose daughter was one of the 168 victims of the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh spoke on Taylor's behalf, asking the jury not to give the death penalty. The man, who spoke as a representative of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, also was seeking to stop McVeigh's execution. Ultimately, Taylor was given life in prison. His co-defendant, Michael Taylor, no relation, received the death penalty a year earlier.
Others have expressed satisfaction in the state's death penalty. After the 2002 execution of Martin, the parents of his victim, Christina Burgin, said they were "ecstatic" over his death, news reports at the time stated.
Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden Burl Cain, who was at Martin's side when he died, said he feels compassion for the families of death row inmates but his thoughts focus on the victims and their families.
"I think about the victims," Cain said of what goes through his mind while sharing a last meal and standing by an inmate, sometimes holding his hand, as he is executed. "I wish I could have helped the victims. I wish I could have stopped (the victim's murder)."
After the state's last hanging, Louisiana switched to the electric chair. The oak chair, which was transported to the parish where the execution was to take place for nearly 16 years, was the method of choice from 1941 to 1991. The electric chair found a permanent home at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1957.
In that chair is where the only woman to be executed in Louisiana met her end. Toni Jo Henry, a Shreveporter, was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1940 killing of a 41-year-old tire salesman from Houston. She was executed on Nov. 28, 1942, in Lake Charles.
Two women, including Brandy Holmes, of Shreveport, sit on death row today. Both are housed at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel. Holmes' latest appeal is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The other woman, former New Orleans police officer Antoinette Frank, saw her pending December 2008 execution for a 1995 triple homicide canceled by the Louisiana Supreme Court just weeks before she would have received a lethal injection.
In 1967, all executions nationwide were suspended pending a final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately struck down the death penalty. All death row inmates at that time were resentenced to life imprisonment, according to DOC records.
The state resumed executions in 1983 and switched to lethal injections in 1991.
Cain, who has led six of the seven men executed by lethal injection to their deaths, said the prison's method of execution, which offers the condemned a last meal of choice and time with families, offers dignity. He wishes more could be done for the victims and their families.
"You do what you can where you are," Cain said.
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