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Obstructionism, amendment may risk innocent lives

As it turns out, in indirect fashion Louisianans may end up countenancing more murders beginning next year.

The regular legislative session that recently concluded didn’t produce any successful legislation directly affecting capital punishment, but one tangential to the issue will affect the practice’s effectiveness, depending on voter attitudes. That will put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that requires jury unanimity for felony convictions including capital sentences; presently, only 10 of a dozen jurors need agree to declare someone guilty.

Mathematically, this makes less likely a jury would convict an individual accused of murder, which increases the chances that a guilty suspect goes free. This translates to an increased chance of homicides occurring, as research demonstrates that every additional capital sentence carried out decreases the incidence of murder.

But that effect may pale in comparison to the campaign of sabotage, some just a by-product of defending the accused but other of it deliberate to carry out an ideological imperative serving to subvert the beneficial impact of the death penalty, against the practice. Studies also indicate that the lower the proportion of convicts with capital sentences carried out, the less powerful the deterrent effect becomes.

This allows opponents who fault the penalty to claim its ineffectiveness thus proves the state should dispense with it, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether they realize it, that strategy invalidates their argument that it doesn’t work; it would, if done in a credible way. Costliness remains another matter, but that also almost entirely stems from ideological opponents’ actions in their aggressive efforts to slow the process – often using taxpayer dollars to facilitate this, as the vast majority of convicted murderers use public defenders before incarceration and to a lesser degree afterwards in appeals.

One particularly insidious part of the credibility gap – which certainly applies in Louisiana since its last forced execution happened 16 years ago – comes from special interests pressuring manufacturers of the chemicals used for the only method currently allowed under state law of execution not to sell them to states with capital punishment on the books. To bypass this chokepoint, the state should change its law to allow for an alternative method, such as firing squad.

Unfortunately, no legislator has filed a bill to do this since Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards took office, although the year before that an attempt to pass that kind of bill failed. Edwards has remained coy about the death penalty as a whole, saying he won’t commit to keeping or abolishing it.

Keep in mind as well that just because the law permits this penalty that doesn’t mean prosecutors must seek it or juries assent to it. Even if the state rarely levied it, as long as it carried out the sentence with regularity – Texas has sent 43 murderers to their final rewards over the past 54 months with a death row hovering at nearly 250 – that would deter potential homicides which in turn would reduce the need for executions.

Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of virtuous cycle opponents want. Worse, that obstructionism underscores the mistaken notion that prohibiting capital punishment somehow is “pro-life” – when in fact the proper pro-life stance understands that the death penalty, properly administered in a timely way, saves innocent lives.

Regrettably, the sitzkrieg looks likely to continue next year with legislators unlikely to pursue an alternative execution method just prior to elections, if the fate of the 2015 bill reveals anything. And, even as putting unanimous jury decisions into the Constitution might decrease chances of convicting the innocent, it also would put more innocents at risk at the hands of those wishing to take their lives.

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