The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections violated state law by meeting in secret to discuss new ways to execute death-row prisoners, a new lawsuit alleges, even though a lawyer for the department said officials did nothing wrong.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the Promise of Justice Initiative, an organization that seeks changes in Louisiana’s criminal justice system, particularly the abolition of the death penalty. It claims that the Department of Corrections broke the law because state officials convened as a legislative committee to help shape public policy, but they didn’t invite the public to any of their meetings, as required by the state’s Open Meetings Law.
James LeBlanc, secretary of the department, headed the study committee, which was tasked last year with finding the most humane way to administer the death penalty in Louisiana. Other members were State Penitentiary Warden Burl Cain, five other department employees and two lawyers that represent the department.
Together, those state officials and lawyers submitted a report to the state House of Representatives in February after conducting a six-month study of the death penalty, as mandated by a resolution passed last year. The report suggested executing inmates with a never-before used method — suffocation by nitrogen — as well as reviving a bill that would allow for more secrecy surrounding executions.
While conducting the study, the committee met at least seven times in secret, with no public notice or opportunity for input, according to Sidney Garmon, plaintiff in the suit and director for the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The lawsuit says that Garmon, as a member of the public, should have been able to attend these meetings in order to do a key part of her job — work with policymakers to implement alternatives to the death penalty.
“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy,” the lawsuit says, quoting Louisiana’s Constitution.
The lawsuit says the committee’s report is void because all of the meetings leading to it were conducted in private.
Louisiana Open Meetings Law mandates that “every meeting of any public body” shall be open to the public, and shall be recorded with notes or minutes for the public to review later, with a few exceptions.
One of those exceptions allows legislative committees to enter executive session — but only for certain purposes, such as discussing confidential communications. The committee also has to meet as a public body first before voting to go into executive session.
After first reporting on the death-penalty study, The Lens asked committee members and Rep. Joseph P. Lopinto III, R-Metairie whether or not their meetings were held in public. The Lens also asked if the committee produced any agendas before or kept notes during the meetings.
Lopinto, the chairman of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, authored the resolution asking for the study. He also authored a secrecy bill last session, but then dropped it without explanation.
Lopinto didn’t respond to requests for comment.
James Hilburn, a lawyer for the corrections department, avoided answering whether or not committee members met in public, but he said the state agency obeyed the law.
“The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections complied with all applicable laws in preparing the report in response to HR 142 as requested by the legislature,” Hilburn said in an email.
The committee’s report comes four months before a hearing in federal court on the constitutionality of the state’s method for executing prisoners, tied to another lawsuit filed by members of the Promise of Justice Initiative. In that lawsuit, lawyers for death-row inmate Christopher Sepulvado say that current death penalty practices violate their client’s constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Sepulvado, who is convicted of killing his stepson by beating him and submerging him in scalding water, has won several stays of execution in the past two years. Recently, a federal judge put all executions on hold until June, until the state figures out the best way to kill its death row inmates.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit filed in state court Tuesday, the legislature is unlikely to make any “substantial” changes to death-penalty protocols this year, Lopinto told The Lens earlier this month.
Lopinto said it was unlikely that a secrecy bill would emerge again in Legislature this session. He also said he hadn’t yet weighed all his options regarding nitrogen,but that he was sure that any method would continue to prompt lawsuits in the future.
“Even if we change to nitrogen, it’s not like we’re not going to have a legal battle,” Lopinto said. “We still have a viable option in lethal injection. It’s the way it’s done in other states. We’ll have to consider it next year.”