Electric chair to stay unplugged

Gruesome Gertie can remain unplugged.

State Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, abruptly dropped his proposal Tuesday to bring back the electric chair in Louisiana.

He waited until nearly the end of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice’s meeting to reveal his decision.

“I know there was a rumor that I was involuntarily deferring this. It’s not completely true,” Lopinto said.

Instead, House Bill 328 received a dramatic rewrite. It now calls for the details surrounding drugs used for lethal injection to remain a secret.

The rewriting came at state Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc’s request.

Legislators also got a glimpse into the alternatives that LeBlanc is considering amid a struggle to acquire the traditional execution drugs.

“Nitrogen is the big thing. It’s a painless way to go. But more time needs to be spent on that,” LeBlanc said.

States are struggling to carry out the death penalty because of a clampdown on the availability of deadly drugs used for executions.

European manufacturers don’t want their drugs used in executions, forcing states to turn to compounding pharmacies or to explore substances not previously used in death chambers.

Details on the avenues pursued by states come from lawyers for the condemned killers. States themselves are loathe to reveal where they shop for fear of a ban on return visits.

In Louisiana, LeBlanc is embroiled in a legal battle with convicted child killer Christopher Sepulvado over the drugs the state plans to use in Sepulvado’s execution.

Sepulvado wants to know how the state got the drugs. The state doesn’t want to disclose those details. The execution is stayed pending a federal court hearing in June on the state’s two-drug protocol.

“It’s very stressful to say the least what we’re going through. It’s very costly,” LeBlanc said, referring to the litigation.

With LeBlanc wrapped up in the Sepulvado court case, Lopinto said he didn’t want to divert his attention to dusting off the state’s electric chair.

The last Louisiana inmate executed in the electric chair was Andrew Lee Jones in 1991.

The bill now simply consists of a public records law exemption. The name, address, qualifications and other identifying information of any person or entity that manufactures, compounds, prescribes, dispenses, supplies or administers execution drugs would be confidential.

Lopinto also plans to form a study commission on diversifying the death penalty in Louisiana, which now can only be carried out by lethal injection. Both he and LeBlanc mentioned inert gases, which are used to slaughter animals.

Robert Tasman, associate director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered legislators an alternative entirely to the death penalty. He suggested doing away with executions.

“God is creative, and the fact that we can’t use the drugs right now might be a life affirming message that we shouldn’t be executing people,” Tasman said.

However, committee members seemed to be soothed by the move away from resurrecting the electric chair.

“We’re taking the plug out of the electric chair, right? OK, you’ve got me. Don’t tell me anymore. Don’t confuse me,” state Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, told Lopinto.

Lopinto said he initially went with the electric chair because it was the last method used before lethal injection. He said he prefers lethal injection but recognizes the difficulty with it.

The state wants to use pentobarbital to put Sepulvado to death for scalding to death his young stepson in 1992.

The child, Allen Mercer, died at DeSoto General Hospital of severe burns after being dropped into a bathtub filled with hot water. He had third-degree burns over 58 percent of his body as well as significant hemorrhaging and bruising.

Unable to get pentobarbital, the state switched to the sedative midazolam and the pain medication hydromorphone. The drugs are in stock but are set to expire next year.

“It’s become almost impossible to execute someone,” LeBlanc said.

An alternative, he said, is to use inert gases. He said two technicians working on the space shuttle in 1981 died painlessly when they accidentally walked into a nitrogen chamber.

“But more time needs to be spent on that,” LeBlanc said of expanding Louisiana’s execution methods.