By Paul Braun and Devon Sanders, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — A Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would eliminate the death penalty in Louisiana effective August 1.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, authored the bill, reasoning that the death penalty is an outdated and costly means of punishment. 

“The death penalty is an archaic holdover from a time where we were not as civilized as we are today,” Morrell said.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, provided the only vocal opposition. He argued that abolishing the death penalty would have no effect on the state’s high rate of violent crime.

Morrell responded that “we have had the death penalty on the books since the founding of our state, and it has not deterred violent crime.” 

“Increasingly, we are finding individuals that commit these violent crimes are mentally unbalanced,” Morrell said. “Many of them are tortured, damaged people who do horrific things because they don’t value human life.”

Morrell’s bill advanced by a 4-1 vote. Two Democratic senators, Troy Carter of New Orleans and Regina Barrow of Baton Rouge, voted for the bill, as did two Republicans, Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge, the committee chairman, and Sen. Fred Mills of Parks.

White cast the lone no vote. Sen. Yvonne Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, and Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, were not present.

Since 2000, seven people on death row in Louisiana had been exonerated, while only two had been executed, according to the Louisiana Budget Project. Louisiana conducted its last execution in 2010.

A federal court has barred the state from carrying out executions since 2014 in part because of difficulties in obtaining the drugs considered humane for lethal injections.

Louisiana is one of 32 states with a death penalty. There are 72 people on death row in Louisiana.

Similar bills to abolish the death penalty were introduced last year by Sen. Claitor and Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia. Claitor’s passed in a committee, but was shelved after Landry’s bill failed to advance from a House panel.

A much bigger test of the proposal to end the death penalty could come Wednesday when a new bill by Landry, HB162, will be considered before the same House committee that killed his proposal last year.

No members of the public voiced opposition to the proposal at Tuesday’s hearing.

Representatives from the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association filed red cards in opposition to the bill, but did not speak, possibly electing to save their dissent for the more conservative House committee.

In the meeting Tuesday, Claitor, the committee chairman, brought up the financial burden of capital cases. Morrell agreed, saying in particular that the Louisiana Public Defender Board spends a “tremendous” portion of its annual funding outsourcing capital cases to more expensive criminal defense attorneys.

A 2016 study by the Louisiana Budget Project reported that one-third of the Louisiana Public Defender Board’s annual budget of $33 million was spent on capital cases.