Stark Decline in Louisiana's Use of Death Penalty Reflects Broader Trends

A recent article in The Economist examines the state of capital punishment in Louisiana and the state’s striking decline in the use of the death penalty. In 1987, its peak year for executions, Louisiana executed eight prisoners. Since 2002, the state has had just one execution. This decline “is far more precipitous than in neighboring states like Mississippi and Alabama,” which the article says have each executed more than 10 people since 2010. The reasons for Louisiana’s reduction in executions are similar to those behind declines in other states across the nation. Louisiana’s nine exonerations of prisoners wrongly sent to death row under the state’s current death penalty statute brought attention to problems of prosecutorial misconduct and the risk of executing innocent people. Studies have demonstrated serious racial bias in the state’s use of capital punishment: defendants convicted of killing white victims are more than 10 times as likely to be executed than those convicted of killing black victims. The courts reverse death sentences imposed in Louisiana at rates that are “extremely high” as compared to other states. And the high cost of death penalty cases has made district attorneys more hesitant to seek a death sentence, especially since Louisiana sets an unusually low bar for obtaining a sentence of life without parole. While a death sentence requires two unanimous jury votes (one for guilt and another for a death sentence), a life without parole sentence can be imposed when only 10 jurors agree that the defendant is guilty. As a result of all these factors, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country has not performed an execution in more than 6 years.

(G.R., “Why is Louisiana executing fewer people?,” The Economist, July 11, 2016.) See Arbitrariness and Innocence.