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Reports on Louisiana politics, government and the people shaping state policy.

State lawmakers approve expanding execution methods. Here's what also passed

The Louisiana Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.
Stephen Smith
The Louisiana Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.

A bill that would add the electric chair and nitrogen gas hypoxia as methods of execution in Louisiana advanced from the full legislature on Thursday.

The bill would also hide information from the public about drug manufacturers and materials involved in an execution, though an amendment in a Senate committee removed criminal penalties for leaking that information that had been included in a prior version.

The bill was also amended to give the state inspector general oversight of the medical drugs, supplies and equipment used in executions to ensure they come from a reputable source.

Lawmakers in the House agreed to those changes Thursday afternoon, sending the bill to Gov. Jeff Landry’s desk and ending a two-week special session on crime. Landry is expected to sign that bill — and several other tough-on-crime proposals — next week.

The proposal to expand execution methods, House Bill 6, was supported by Landry and passed the majority-Republican legislature with ease. The bill's author Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, said in an interview before the session that he grappled with whether to bring the proposal.

“It’s death. It’s not fun,” he said. “I’ve stayed up many nights thinking about this bill.”

Muscarello said his focus is on bringing justice to crime victims and their families, a sentiment that Landry and lawmakers repeated frequently over the last two weeks. Landry joined crime victims and their family members Thursday morning to watch the chamber’s final vote.

Wayne and Carol Guzzardo, whose 27-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was shot and killed at Calendar’s restaurant in Baton Rouge in 1995, were among the crime victims who joined Landry. The Guzzardos have spent the last three decades fighting to see their daughter’s killer, Todd Wessinger, executed. They testified in multiple legislative committees this weeks in support of the bill.

“We've been accused of being revengeful. Well, we don't want no revenge. We want justice for our daughter. That's all we want,” said Wayne Guzzardo in an interview.

The legislature’s approval of the bill signals the state will soon resume executions after a 14-year hiatus, giving people like the Guzzardos their desired outcome, while raising concerns from anti-death penalty advocates.

“I don't mean to take away any of the pain of the victim's family. But in a state that has an 84% reversal rate of death sentences, in a state that has far more exonerations than executions, that contract with the victims simply can't be kept,” said Cecelia Kappel, executive director of the Capital Appeals Project, a nonprofit law office that fights to get its clients off death row.

In addition to HB 6, the legislature sent a dozen other bills to Gov. Landry’s desk. The special session will likely reshape the landscape of criminal punishment in Louisiana for years to come.

Throughout the session, there was little time for debate, and a number of consequential policy changes were pushed through without a clear picture of how much money they will cost taxpayers or achieve their stated goals.

The bills approved by both the House and Senate this week included:

  • House Bill 1: Gives the public access to the arrest, court summons and sentencing records of children who are accused of violent crimes.
  • House Bill 2: Gives law enforcement officers immunity from civil lawsuits for actions carried out in the course of their official work. 
  • House Bill 5: Designates the crime of illegal use of weapons or dangerous instrumentalities as a crime of violence.
  • House Bill 7: Increases penalties for the crime of carjacking.
  • House Bill 8: Institutes a minimum sentence of 25 years at hard labor for anyone convicted of selling fentanyl “in a manner where there is reasonable appeal to a minor due to the shape, color, taste, or design of the fentanyl or the fentanyl's packaging.”
  • House Bill 9: Eliminates parole eligibility for most people who commit crimes after August 1, 2024.
  • House Bill 11: Extends the length of probation that can be required for those released from incarceration, allows for probation to be extended solely because defendants are unable to pay fines and fees, increases penalties for probation violations and expands the types of offenses that can be considered violations (including to “any attempt to commit” a misdemeanor). 
  • House Bill 23: Changes the procedures for challenging the constitutionality of a Louisiana law. 
  • Senate Bill 1: Allows most people 18 years or older to legally carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
  • Senate Bill 3: Allows for 17-year-olds to be tried as adults.
  • Senate Bill 5: Requires a unanimous vote by the parole board for parole to be granted and further restricts parole eligibility. 
  • Senate Bill 9: Allows for prosecution of noncapital sex offenses past the statute of limitations if new photographic or video evidence is discovered. 
  • Senate Bill 10: Restricts the amount of “good time,” or reduction of sentence that can be earned for good behavior, by those convicted in the death of a peace officer or first responder.
Molly Ryan is a political reporter and covers state politics from the Louisiana Capitol.

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