Political Horizons: Death penalty bill: Justice, swift and true?

Lopinto
Lopinto

Trite phrases, like law-making as sausage-making, aside, there’s no disputing the impact of last-minute finagling on efforts to restart Louisiana’s capital punishment system, which has freed almost three times as many condemned killers as the state has executed this century.

It started when Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed legislation that was near and dear to state Rep. Joseph Lopinto, a former prosecutor and lawman, who chairs the House Criminal Justice committee.

As the father of twins who were conceived through in-vitro fertilization, the Metairie Republican and his wife, Lauren, opened up a highly personal chapter of their lives to push legislation that would structure a way for infertile Louisiana parents to legally contract with a surrogate, which also involves in-vitro fertilization.

A similar bill passed overwhelmingly last year, but was vetoed with the recommendation to negotiate with religious opponents. In light of the legislative support and after working with Lopinto to refine the bill’s particulars, the Louisiana Family Forum and the bishops who run the state’s Roman Catholic Church still opposed House Bill 187, but agreed not to actively lobby against it.

But Gene Mills, the head of the Family Forum, asked Jindal to veto the measure telling reporters that despite Lopinto’s compromising on all but one recommendation, he was not confident that the legislation would keep surrogate mothers from becoming commercial commodities.

Robert Tasman, of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was surprised when one of Jindal’s aides called and asked if the opposing bishops had changed their minds about asking for a veto.

“It was an interesting position for us to be put in,” Tasman said. “The bishops felt it’d be incredibly important that we keep our word to him (Lopinto).”

The day after Jindal’s veto, Lopinto delivered an angry speech, during which he criticized unnamed people for not being honest. He then announced he would not force his colleagues to oppose the governor by overriding the veto.

“We may not win a war, but we can win a battle every once in a while,” Lopinto said.

After the veto, Lopinto said he told Jindal aides he would not ask for a vote on House Bill 328, which would have greased the wheels of Louisiana’s executions. But he also denied any link between Jindal’s veto and his decision.

Rather, Lopinto told reporters that the measure was only a short-term solution.

The Jindal administration had hoped the measure could circumvent legal blockades that had arisen when several European drug manufacturers refused to sell the drugs necessary for the lethal injections. Lopinto’s HB328 would have allowed state officials to buy the now hard-to-find drugs from compounding pharmacies, which would make drugs from scratch and Louisiana would keep secret the names of the companies.

Louisiana is not the only state following the secrecy route. An Associated Press survey of the 32 death penalty states, published in April, found that the vast majority refuse to disclose the source of their execution drugs.

Both the Catholic Church and Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers oppose capital punishment and Lopinto’s bill.

George Steimel, who lobbies for the criminal defense lawyers, says he was chatting with Tasman when he learned that Lopinto would not pursue the bill. “For him (Lopinto) to have done that, and feeling as strongly about it as he did, it seems really strange,” Steimel said.

Three convicted murderers have been executed since 2000, the last one in May 2002 on a warrant signed by Gov. Mike Foster. (Gerald Bordelon, the last person put to death, volunteered.)

During those same 14 years, Steimel points out that eight death row inmates have been exonerated and released. That’s about one-tenth of the 81 men and two women on death row.

Lopinto testified in committee: “If we’re going to have (the death penalty) and trust a unanimous jury to put someone to death for that crime, we need to let them follow through.”

More to the point, Lopinto told reporters that he’s come to realize that the whole area of the law is in such upheaval right now, that the smarter move is to study what’s happening in other states and see what the U.S. Supreme Court says, then make recommendations on how to proceed, he said.

The Georgia Supreme Court, for instance, upheld that state’s secrecy statute. Last week alone, one federal court, in Missouri, halted a planned execution and another, in Texas, denied a stay.

In the end, Lopinto may prove more prescient than petulant.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.