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Criminal penalties removed from Louisiana’s death penalty secrecy bill

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Criminal penalties removed from Louisiana’s death penalty secrecy bill

Feb 26, 2024 | 8:48 pm ET
By Piper Hutchinson
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Criminal penalties removed from Louisiana’s death penalty secrecy bill
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Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, presenting his bill to the House during the special crime session. (Allison Allsop/Louisiana Illuminator)

A Louisiana Senate committee advanced a bill Monday that expands capital punishment methods and shields records related to executions from public view, but removed provisions in the proposal that could have sent anyone who publicized the information — including  journalists — to prison. 

The Senate Judiciary C Committee approved House Bill 6 by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, on a party line 5-1 vote with Republicans prevailing. 

The bill adds nitrogen gas and electrocution to the methods the state can use to execute people. The bill also shields records from the public that cover companies or pharmacies that sell execution drugs and equipment to the state. 

Originally, the bill included up to two years in prison and fine reaching $50,000 on anyone who disclosed capital punishment information to the public. The penalties would have applied  corrections officials and journalists who obtain the information legally. 

Committee Chair Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe, amended the bill to remove the criminal penalties. The proposal still allows those who disclose the information to be sued. 

First Amendment experts say civil penalties could still be considered unconstitutional if applied to the news media. 

While the committee meeting ended with somewhat of a compromise, the bill’s hearing was among the most contentious in the current special session on crime, in which Republican supermajorities in both chambers seek to roll back bipartisan criminal justice changes enacted under former Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat. 

In just under three hours, Republicans on the committee choked up with tears, scolded the public and then apologized for their comments as the public gave emotional testimony for and against expanding the death penalty. 

One point of contention was who committee members considered to be “real victims.” 

Senators first heard testimony from friends and family of those killed by death-row inmates. 

Danna Nachampassak’s 11-month-old son Etienne was shot and killed in New Orleans in 1995. She and her husband were also wounded. Clifford Deruise was convicted in the baby boy’s death as well as the murder of another man just days before. 

Committee members wiped away tears as Nachampassak described begging for her family’s lives in what police said was a carjacking gone wrong. She recalled holding her son as he died after being taken off life support two days later. 

Morris and fellow committee member Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, choked up as they thanked Nachampassak for her bravery in testimony. 

Shortly afterward, Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen, said violent crime survivors who opposed expanding the death penalty were not “real victims.” 

“Everybody’s trying to take up for this man that was executed, but nobody’s taking up for the victims here,” Kleinpeter said after Katie Hunter-Lowrey’s comments execution by nitrogen gas hypoxia as inhumane. Hunter-Lowrey represents Louisiana Survivors for Reform, a victims’ advocacy group that opposes the death penalty. 

Alabama became the first state to put a condemned person to death by nitrogen hypoxia last month. Kenneth Eugene Smith faced the death penalty for a 1988 murder. Since he was executed, multiple states have looked to add the method. 

Through nitrogen hypoxia, a mask is affixed to the condemned prisoner’s face. Pure nitrogen gas is pumped through, causing the individual to die from a lack of oxygen. Witnesses to Smith’s execution said he struggled for several minutes before losing consciousness and dying after about 30 minutes. 

Nitrogen hypoxia execution was also opposed by several Jewish anti-death penalty advocates who said death by gassing contradicts their Jewish faith — and is morally repugnant considering its use on their ancestors. 

“As Jewish citizens of Louisiana, we find the use of any form of gas for state executions a violation of our ethical principles and of Judaism’s deep commitment to innate human dignity,” said Claire Fitzpatrick, reading comments from Loyola professor Naomi Yavneh. 

Fitzpatrick went on to describe how lethal gas was used against Jewish people and other groups during the Holocaust before Morris interrupted her. 

“You are about to equate what we’re doing here with Nazis,” Morris said. “That is inappropriate and offensive to me.” 

After Morris’ comments, the committee room briefly erupted in raised voices, with those on both sides of the issue chiming in. 

Kleinpeter also took an opportunity to chide Fitzpatrick and other opponents of the bill who spoke during the public comment period. 

“There’s another place and time that you can come do this. Not today,” Kleinpeter said, before getting up abruptly and leaving the room. 

Morris later apologized for raising his voice.