Some want to speed executions

Frustrated with the yawning distance between the pronouncement of a death-penalty sentence and the actual execution, state Rep. Kenny Havard wants to accelerate the process.

“We have inmates on death row for 20 to 30 years,” Havard complained. At issue is whether his proposed solution would speed anything at all.

Havard, R-St. Francisville, filed House Bill 71 to eliminate an exemption that gives death-row inmates extra time to file their post-conviction appeals. Under the bill, inmates would have to file their state court applications for post-conviction relief within two years of their sentence becoming final. The idea is to accelerate the appeals process.

The bill will be debated in the legislative session that starts next month.

“My view is any effort to tinker with post-conviction will prolong every case by 10 years while we litigate the new rule. The people on death row will applaud any effort to impose unconstitutional time limits,” Baton Rouge criminal defense attorney Jim Boren said.

Dale Lee, a prosecutor who handles appeals for the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office, pointed to another problem with Havard’s proposal. Because of a deadline on federal habeas corpus writs, death-row inmates are pretty speedy in filing with state courts for post-conviction relief. Havard could be trying to fix a problem that doesn’t even exist, he said.

A federal habeas corpus writ generally is a condemned killer’s last shot at escaping execution. It comes into play after other appeals have been exhausted. Condemned killers must file such writs within strict deadlines. Filing for post-conviction relief at the state level can stop the clock on lodging federal habeas corpus writs.

What many attorneys do is file a shell petition for post-conviction relief simply to halt the federal clock. Two or three pages of vague complaints might be filed. “We spend most of our time in (post-conviction reliefs) trying to get the groups appointed to bring something with some meat on it,” Lee said.

Families and legislators like Havard are frustrated with the wait.

Seven of Louisiana’s death-row inmates have been there since the 1980s. The last inmate put to death was Gerald Bordelon, who had to fight for his right to waive his appeals.

Earlier this month, the state agreed to delay the execution of 70-year-old Christopher Sepulvado in the DeSoto Parish killing of his young stepson. Sepulvado was convicted of beating the 6-year-old with a screwdriver and scalding him with hot water.

Sepulvado raised questions about the drugs that the state plans to use to put him to death. Unable to get pentobarbital, the state plans to use a largely untested drug combination for the lethal injection. An April trial now is set in Baton Rouge’s federal district court on the constitutionality of Louisiana’s new execution protocol.

Other death row inmates want to jump into the case, which originally was filed not by Sepulvado, but by St. Tammany Parish condemned killer Jessie Hoffman. Among the intervening inmates is Kevan Brumfield, who wants to raise constitutional objections to the state’s plans to kill him for the death of Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers.

Havard said death row inmates seem to file petition after petition.

“They’re tough issues. No one wants to put someone to death unless they’re sure they did it. It’s not fair to the victims’ families to go through this process every couple of years,” he said.

Havard acknowledged that his legislation has problems because of the federal timelines. He said he hopes to get something accomplished, nonetheless.

“Death penalty litigation is very complex and time-consuming. We welcome any effort by the Legislature to prevent needless delays in the process,” Lee said.

Havard also wants to expand the definition of the death penalty to apply to the killings of correctional facility employees. He said inmates should be held accountable for deaths within prison walls. That piece of legislation is House Bill 52.

“We need to start treating inmates like they’re inmates and not like they’re living at the Holiday Express,” he said.

First-degree murder is the only crime punishable by the death penalty in Louisiana. It is triggered when the victim is younger than 12 or older than 65, or when the victim is a firefighter, a peace officer or a civilian employee of the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory. Death by lethal injection also comes into play when another felony, such as armed robbery or rape, is involved.

Legislators recently made the symbolic gesture of including taxicab drivers in the list of victims covered by the death penalty. Cab drivers generally are killed during an armed robbery — the classic ingredients for a capital case — so the legislation was seen as a supportive nod toward the cab industry.

Havard said he wants to protect prison guards, but they probably are already considered peace officers or are killed during felony circumstances such as an escape. Havard and the bill’s co-sponsor, state Rep. Major Thibaut, represent communities in which prison workers loom large.

“They do take a huge risk in working for that facility,” said Thibaut, D-New Roads.