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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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Death penalty remains a controversial issue in Louisiana

Death penalty remains a controversial issue in Louisiana

Efforts to abolish the death penalty have failed in the state Legislature.

When a jury decided in 2016 that David Brown should die for killing a woman and her two daughters, it marked a rare occurrence in Lafourche Parish, and District Attorney Kristine Russell is thankful for that.

“Thank goodness it’s something we’re not faced with often and hope to never face again,” said Russell, who assisted then-District Attorney Cam Morvant in the prosecution of Brown. “The process takes a long time to reach a conviction, and you certainly want to allow families of the victims to have some input. It’s truly the biggest decision a prosecutor can make.”

A jury on Oct. 30, 2016, unanimously convicted Brown of the first-degree murders of 29-year-old Jacquelin, 7-year-old Gabriela and 1-year-old Izabela Nieves. Brown stabbed all three victims, raped Jacquelin and Gabriela and set the family’s apartment on fire.

The jury decided Nov. 1, 2016, that Brown should get the death penalty. It marked the first time in nearly 40 years a jury voted to put someone to death for a crime committed in Lafourche Parish.

Although Louisiana is one of 31 states that still have the death penalty, the sentence has become more of a symbolic gesture due to the exorbitant cost and ethical dilemmas it creates, said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health and Justice.

“People on death row are more likely to die of cancer or diabetes than being executed,” Scharf said. “If it’s symbolic, it’s become a very high-priced symbol. There are legal, confinement and procedural costs involved. I think we really need to think of it from a 360-degree lens and look at all the factors that raise ethical, legal and constitutional questions.”

It costs taxpayers about $1.52 million a year to house death row inmates, and roughly 28 percent of the Public Defender Board’s annual budget is spent on capital cases, according to the state Department of Corrections.

The controversies surrounding the death penalty caught the attention of Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, whose House Bill 162 aimed to abolish executions in Louisiana. However, the measure died in committee April 11.

Due to its controversial nature, Landry’s bill failing did not surprise Terrebonne District Attorney Joseph Waitz Jr.

“I have mixed emotions about the death penalty,” Waitz said. “I think some cases warrant it; however, the expense and time it takes make me wonder if it’s good for the victims in bringing them closure. It drags victims’ families on for years and years. For example, the Chad Louviere case went on for about 15 years.”

On the morning of Oct. 17, 1996, Louviere drove to a bank at Grand Caillou and Moffet roads, where his estranged wife was working. He walked in with a bag containing an AR-15 rifle and ordered two male customers out. He took six women employees hostage, locked the doors and shot and killed 27-year-old Pamela Duplantis, the mother of a 9-year-old girl. Louviere forced two of the women to perform sex acts on each other while he watched and then raped all three women who remained inside.

He was sentenced to death in 2000 but was re-sentenced April 21, 2015, to two consecutive life terms following appeals that lasted 15 years. After months of consultation, the victims agreed unanimously to revoke the death penalty rather than face the possibility of another trial, prosecutors said.

Louviere’s case is indicative of how expensive and time-consuming Louisiana’s death penalty process has become, Waitz said.

“There are so many hurdles we have to jump through it makes me think maybe we shouldn’t give murderers the easy way out and just let them sit in jail for the rest of their lives,” Waitz said. “The time delays are so out-of-control that it makes it not feasible.”

There are 70 death row inmates currently in Louisiana, but only two have been executed in the last 18 years. Gerald Bordelon, who was convicted in 2002 for killing his 12-year-old stepdaughter in Livingston Parish, was executed in 2010 after waiving his appeals.

During her 15 years as a Lafourche prosecutor, Russell has been involved in two such cases – Brown and Amy Hebert.

Although Hebert was facing execution for the murders of her 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son in 2007, she was given a life sentence in 2009 after jury members disagreed about her fate.

“From the very beginning it’s such a painstaking process because you want to do the right thing,” Russell said. “While ultimately Cam Morvant made the decision to go forward with the death penalty in those cases, I was able to participate in the process. He really made sure he got opinions from people in our office and talked to family members. It’s a completely different decision-making process than any type of case that comes to our office. Death penalty cases are not taken lightly.”

Brown’s request for a new trial was denied on April 5. He is scheduled to be formally sentenced 1:30 p.m. June 1.

-- Daily Comet Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 857-2202 or at Follow him on Twitter@DanVCopp.