Louisiana Spotlight: JBE dodges questions about death penalty
BATON ROUGE — With a less-than-firm position on Louisiana’s use of the death penalty, Gov. John Bel Edwards has given his regular sparring partner, Attorney General Jeff Landry, a foothold to needle the governor in the summer’s political doldrums.
Landry, a Republican considered a possible challenger to Edwards next year, suggests the Democratic governor’s lackluster support for Louisiana’s use of capital punishment keeps Edwards from pressing to carry out Louisiana’s pending executions.
And Edwards’ lukewarm response to questions about his personal position on whether the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment allows Landry to continue speculating that the governor is deliberately dragging his feet on enforcing state law.
Louisiana’s last execution was in 2010. Seventy-one inmates are on death row in the state.
The spark for this latest Edwards/Landry feud was a federal court order this month prohibiting Louisiana from carrying out any death sentences until mid-2019.
The Edwards administration asked for the extension, citing trouble getting lethal injection drugs. In response, Landry’s office said it was withdrawing from defending the corrections department against the lawsuit challenging its lethal injection protocols.
Landry said the biggest obstacle is Edwards’ “unwillingness to proceed.” He’s slammed the governor on the issue in letters released to news outlets, in interviews, and on social media.
Though reporters have continually asked, the governor won’t say if he personally supports the death penalty. He dodges when questioned about it.
Asked last week if he favored capital punishment, Edwards told reporters: “The law of the state of Louisiana allows for the death penalty, and it prescribes a certain method.” Then, he explained: “It is not possible to carry out the death penalty in the state of Louisiana because the drug cocktail is not available to use.”
Another reporter tried again, asking a similar question. Edwards replied: “I will do what I am required to do as chief executive officer of the state of Louisiana who takes an oath to the laws and to the constitution of our state.”
Landry claims the governor is using the difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs as an excuse. He points to other states that have found ways to access the drugs and execute prisoners. Landry said continued delays keep victims’ families from “getting justice” for horrific crimes.
Edwards administration officials said the ideas offered by Landry are unworkable. They said if Landry felt so strongly about restarting executions in Louisiana, he could have encouraged legislators to rewrite the laws as some other states have done, to expand available execution methods or shield information about the drugs they use and how they obtain them.
The governor accused Landry of trying to “score political points” by “using victims of crime.”
“The families of victims are not well-served by politicians who spout off about this issue without real solutions,” Edwards wrote the attorney general.
Landry’s office said it tried to work with the Edwards administration behind the scenes and only started hammering the governor publicly when the latest court filing showed Edwards wasn’t interested in carrying out executions.
If Edwards supported capital punishment, Landry said, he’d say so.
“The governor could put this all to bed. He could answer the question,” Landry said.
To be sure, Edwards faces competing pressure points on the issue. He comes from a family of law enforcement officials, stretching across several generations. He’s also Catholic, and church leaders oppose the death penalty, with Pope Francis saying it violates the Gospel.
Landry, too, is Catholic. But he’s direct in his support of the death penalty. He’s sent Edwards proposed draft language that lawmakers could use to allow Louisiana to execute people by nitrogen gas, hanging, firing squads or electrocution.
Asked if he’d support expanding Louisiana’s execution methods, Edwards said: “I’m not inclined to go back to methods that have been discarded because popular sentiment turned against them or maybe some methods that were deemed to be barbaric and so forth.”
“We have a law in place, and we will continue to try to search for solutions around that law, lethal injection. But for example, hangings and firing squads? No, I am not,” the governor said.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte