The Merchant of Vengeance

Perhaps it’s the general theatricality of their feud, but there’s something decidedly Shakespearian about the relationship between Attorney General Jeff Landry and Governor John Bel Edwards. Last Tuesday’s elaborate staging of the latest installment of the drama was no exception, with Landry relishing his role as a modern-day Shylock, in a Louisiana version of “The Merchant of Venice.”

Last Tuesday, Governor John Bel Edwards had the opening lines, as he began his official business day at the Claiborne Building, addressing the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, asking them to include teacher and support worker payraises in their funding proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.

“Increasing teacher pay and support worker pay is my number one focus for the session starting in a month,” the governor told BESE. “Our state economists who do the analyses for the Revenue Estimating Conference say there is enough money to do this, and that it is sustainable.”

Edwards was accompanied to the meeting by First Lady Donna Edwards, who is a teacher by profession, and he acknowledged her part in his making teacher payhikes a priority.

“I like to think we’re all here because of a teacher who inspired us, so I ask you to think on that, and the success they’ve helped you achieve. I certainly want to thank the best teacher I know, with whom I celebrated 30 years of wedded bliss last week.”

“This is the start of a multi-year process to bring our teachers up to the Southern Regional average, and I am proposing we begin with a $1000 down payment toward that goal, for our teachers,” he continued. “For support personnel, bus drivers, those who clean classrooms, I urge a $500 annual raise. Again, this is just a down payment on what must be a multi-year process.”

Noting that it had been a decade since teachers had received any pay increase, the governor concluded his request by saying, “We have the opportunity today to show that Louisiana really does appreciate our teachers and support workers, and that we are committed to investing in the future of the state.”

BESE agreed, and is including the payraises, plus a per-pupil increase of 1.375% to the MFP, in the funding proposal they will send to lawmakers. The legislature can only vote is up or down, as submitted. They cannot change it.

Mere minutes after the Governor spoke across the street, the House Criminal Justice Committee convened in the Capitol basement.

“Everyone knows why we’re here today, to discuss the death penalty, and I appreciate that the Attorney General asked us to have this committee meeting,” Committee chairman Sherman Mack (R-Livingston) said, to open the hearing. “We’re here today to have education on the issues, and healthy debate.”

Attorney General Jeff Landry quickly launched into “educating” committee members on the issue – as he sees it.

“I am here to tell you that we have a major problem in our criminal justice system,” Landry announced. “There’s a lot of misinformation being given out about the death penalty. Those opposing the death penalty use ‘spacious’ (he meant “specious”) arguments not grounded in fact. And the never-ending distortions of anti-death penalty folks take their toll on these families. This saddens me because the wounds from the trauma of the murdered loved ones never fully healed.

“As you know, there’s been a lot of talk these last few years about reforming our criminal justice system, but all the talk is about measures that essentially let people out of jail without vetting. Meanwhile we’ve forgotten to look at the biggest failure concerning offenders who are the worst of the worst: criminals convicted of some of the most gruesome murders, who are allowed to live and breathe on death row year after year. And this is happening on the taxpayers’ dime, while the victim’s families are denied justice.

“It’s been nine years since our last execution. For those of us who revere the rule of law and believe in justice, this is unacceptable.”

On June 18, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Landry sent out the above tweet. As that was the same day as the start of the third special session – the 4th session in a row – for the Louisiana Legislature, many saw the message as another lame Landry attempt to turn attention his way, while trying to provoke yet another spat with the Governor.

Governor John Bel Edwards, otherwise occupied, didn’t respond.

The Pope did, however.

On July 2, 2018, Pope Francis declared the death penalty wrong – in all cases. The Vatican changed its doctrine – the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church – and stated the “Church will work with determination to abolish capital punishment worldwide.”

It was exactly two weeks after the Attorney General’s bloodthirsty tweet.

This past Tuesday, in a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare, Landry proceeded to unveil his litany of disappointment, disapproval, and disagreement with all three branches of government and the Catholic Church – everyone, it appears, except the families of murder victims awaiting enactment of the death sentence.

“No one advocates for the victims left behind. Lawmakers are silent. The Governor’s priorities are elsewhere. The families have been forced to endure multiple trials, yet their justice has been held in limbo, while the system uses every opportunity to minimize their loss, in favor of the murderers.

“As you know, I’m a practicing Catholic, and for more than 2000 years the Catholic Church’s teachings have supported the death penalty, but these days some in the Church have made ending the death penalty a top priority. In doing so, they have chastised many in the faith who – like me – are standing behind those who mourn, rather than those who kill.

“Those bishops cherry-pick. By solely focusing on the mercy of God, they have glossed over the fact that God is also a just God. They overlook what St. Thomas of Aquinas understood when he wrote, “Capital punishment provides the murderer with the incentive to repent.”

“We must be vigilant in insuring that the punishments imposed are delivered, because true justice is the punishment being carried out. The families of victims have a right to see justice delivered.

“Now I know the Governor will use the availability of drugs as a convenient excuse. But last year, I sent him a letter, which I cc’d all of you, outlining the ways that both administratively and legislatively we could remedy the present situation.

“In fact there were 25 executions carried out across the country last year. Thirteen of those were just across our state lines in neighboring Texas. They are protecting their victims’ families. Are we?

“It’s time for Louisiana to administer justice to these families.”

Attorney General Jeff Landry and retired ADA John Sinquefield address LA House Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday, March 12, 2019

As his statements show, Attorney General Jeff Landry is no stranger to cherry-picking himself, to suit his purposes, and the first victim family member to speak cemented the suspicion that Landry was using all involved – the families, the experts, AND the panel of lawmakers – in a political stunt simply to emphasize his personal antithesis for the Governor.

Wayne Guzzardo’s daughter was murdered in 1995, shot and killed by an armed robber who forced his way into the restaurant she managed.

“By placing a moratorium on the death penalty, John Bel turned his back on my daughter,” Guzzardo said, after describing his daughter’s death, and venting his loathing for her killer. “Other states have found a way to carry out the death penalty, but John Bel won’t do it. He blames unavailability of the drug, but Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc said John Bel told him not to pursue the drug. And both of them ignored the list of solutions General Jeff here sent to them.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Guzzardo, please refer to our governor as ‘Governor Edwards” in this committee,” Committee chairman Mack interrupted.

“He’s not MY governor!” Guzzardo responded. “He claims he’s a Christian Catholic. Come on! We know where he stands. He’s against the death penalty. He uses the phrase ‘pro-life, from womb to tomb.’ Well, my wife carried our precious daughter in her womb, and John Bel is preventing sending the man who sent that beautiful girl to her tomb from being sent to his!

“I just hope and pray this is not because of his re-election coming up,” Guzzardo concluded.

Two others who had family members murdered, whose killers still sit on death row, testified about those crimes and the effects of waiting for an execution date. Additionally, Landry had lined up “expert witnesses” to speak: Irvin Magri, president of Louisiana Crime Fighters; John Sinquefield, a former prosecutor who sent (among others) serial killer Derrick Todd Lee to death row; and Michelle Ghetti, Southern University professor of criminal procedure, who is on leave from that position while she serves as Landry’s “Deputy Solicitor General”.

(This would be an appropriate time to note that the position of “Solicitor General” – or a “Deputy” thereof – does not exist in Louisiana law, or on the state Civil Service roster. It is a title Landry has granted to First Assistant AG Liz Murrill. She is the first to – semi-officially – hold the title, although Kyle Duncan, now serving on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, claimed he held that non-existent position here in Louisiana from 2008-2012.)

Back row, left: Wayne Guzzardo. At desk, L to R: Sinquefield, Magri, Ghetti. Inset: CJ chair Sherman Mack

Ghetti delivered a lengthy exposition on the drugs authorized, considered, and used by substitution elsewhere for lethal injection.

“The death penalty has never been declared unconstitutional,” Ghetti stated, “although some of the procedures that led to enacting the death penalty were. More importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court has never set aside the death penalty based on the method of execution used, and Louisiana law says simply that the method must be lethal injection. The law does not include the drug protocols.”

Ghetti explained that the drug named in Louisiana’s Department of Corrections regulations regarding lethal injection protocol – sodium thiopental — was no longer being manufactured. And one of the two drugs that make up the state’s alternative formula allowed for administering lethal injection– pentobarbitol – has also been discontinued. She listed a number of alternatives – some used by other states for lethal injection, and some permitted for use in the five states that allow physician-assisted suicide. And though she acknowledged she is not a medical professional, Ghetti suggested that fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiod, could be utilized instead.

“We hear all the time about how fentanyl kills on the street,” she said. “The Department of Corrections could access it – for free – from the State Crime Lab.”

(With all due respect to this professor of criminal procedure, wouldn’t that affect the evidence and the chain of custody for the criminal proceedings following the confiscation of that fentanyl? But we digress…)

What Ghetti did not mention was the part of Louisiana R.S.15:569 that states, “No licensed health care professional shall be compelled to administer a lethal injection.” That is the legal escape hatch permitting pharmacies to deny purchase requests for any of the lethal injection component drugs to the Department of Corrections and/or the staff at Angola.

Several members of the House Criminal Justice Committee were disturbed by the tone of the testimony, and – once the scheduled witnesses had concluded their statements and the proceedings advanced to lawmaker questions – didn’t hesitate to make their displeasure known.

“I thought we were here to hear primarily from victim families,” Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) remonstrated, addressing her remarks to the committee chairman and the Attorney General, in particular. “I know something about that, about being a victim. My brother was murdered, and the person who murdered him and shot at my other brother is serving life.”

“This hearing is twisted,” she continued. “It seems to be mostly about trying to blame someone for not getting a drug that is no longer being manufactured. The Attorney General talked about a ‘convenient excuse’ made by the Governor. It’s not an ‘excuse” that a lawsuit was filed in courts in 2011, under the Jindal administration. The courts issued a stay – under the Jindal administration. The case is still going through the system. It is the process. It is not a Republican or Democratic issue. The Governor does not have control over the process. And you are out of line to be pointing fingers at the Governor – and at the legislature.”

“Would somebody please tell me why neither the Governor nor the Secretary of Corrections are not here today? Why were they not invited?” Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport) asked. “Their names have been called out here. Why haven’t they been invited? Victims have a right to hear from them, too!”

“They were not NOT invited,” Committee chair Sherman Mack replied. “Had they reached out to me, I would have welcomed them.”

“How were these other people invited?” Norton asked.

“I yield to the Attorney General to answer,” Mack said.

“Public notice,” the AG replied. Then with a smile and a wink, he added, “I’m sure they follow my Twitter feed.”

“It seems to me we’re ignoring an important factor in this entire issue – race,” Rep. Randall Gaines (D-LaPlace) said. “We know minorities are disproportionately sentenced to Death Row.”

“Numbers are funny things,” Professor Ghetti responded. “It depends on what number you use for the numerator or denominator. On Death Row generally, it’s dead even: half are white, half are black.”

“That’s what I said: it’s disproportionate,” Gaines said.

“That’s nationally,” she clarified.

“Uh-huh. And what about Louisiana?” Gaines asked.

Attorney General Jeff Landry took a scolding tone, and wagged his finger admonishingly at Gaines, “Lady Justice is blind.”

Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) had heard enough. An attorney by profession who had taken classes with Prof. Ghetti, James proceeded to demonstrate his courtroom expertise with examining witnesses – making Landry (who had no courtroom experience prior to being elected AG) the example.

“We need truth, we have heard a lot that is untrue. Let me ask about some of your previous statements,” James began. “Do you support hanging?

“I support the death penalty,” the Attorney General answered. “The method by which it is carried out is on you.”

“What about death by firing squad? Gas? Hanging?” James inquired. “What alternate methods do you support?”

“I support the rule of law. How it’s done is up to you,” Landry replied.

“Last July your office signed off on the motion to extend the stay on executions for another year,” James asked. “What’s changed, besides the obvious – that it’s an election year?”

“We asked for the time to work on solutions,” the AG replied. “We explained this to the victim families. We said give us a year to get back on track. We communicate with them. We also communicated with the Department of Corrections and with the Legislature, suggesting changes to them and to you. The Governor can administratively fix this, yet the Governor has remained silent. The big question is, are you going to remain silent?”

“You don’t get to ask the questions here, sir, we do. You want to be the Governor? Run,” James retorted. “In the meantime, you are the state’s chief legal officer, as you are so fond of telling us. What aggressive actions have you taken to address this?”

“We provided suggestions to the Department of Corrections and to you. We put before them and you the list of what can be done.,” Landry said, lame in content, but indignant in tone. “We provided suggestions to the Governor. And the only response is silence.”

“Your office has been negligent in addressing the problem,” James stated.

“We’ve taken the path of least resistance and met up with resistance,” Landry responded.


Governor John Bel Edwards issued a statement, once the hearing concluded last Tuesday. It noted that “neither the Governor’s Office nor the Department of Corrections were invited to participate,” but also remarked on the futility of discussing the issue in a non-session legislative committee hearing, since “A federal judge has issued a stay of all executions in Louisiana.”

Further, the Governor stated:

“I took an oath to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and the state of Louisiana. The fact of the matter is that we cannot execute someone in the state of Louisiana today because the only legally prescribed manner set forth in state statute is unavailable to us. In the time since we last had this conversation, nothing has changed – the drugs are not available and legislation has not passed to address concerns of drug companies or offer alternative forms of execution. That’s not through any fault of my own or the Department of Corrections. 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.”

While we can be fairly certain that the drama between the Governor and the AG will continue — at least for the foreseeable future — let us remain hopeful that one familiar line from the play proves prophetic…