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Louisiana lawmakers move forward with bills intended to curb crime

by Minden Press-Herald

(The Center Square) — Top priorities for Louisiana’s ongoing extraordinary legislative session are coming into focus as lawmakers move numerous bills aligned with Gov. Jeff Landry’s tough-on-crime agenda.

Bills to allow concealed handguns without a permit, expanded options for death row executions, increased penalties for carjacking and lowering the age criminals are tried as adults are among several to gain traction through the first two days of the session that began Monday.

The House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice on Tuesday voted 14-0 to send House Bill 6, by Hammond Republican Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, to the Committee on House and Governmental Affairs following two hours of debate.

HB 6 would expand options available to carry out the death penalty from lethal injection also to include nitrogen hypoxia and electrocution, with the preferred method remaining lethal injection. The state has not executed any death row inmates since 2010, due in part to complications obtaining the necessary drugs and Wayne Guzzardo explained what that reality has meant for his family.

Death row inmate Todd Wessinger killed Guzzardo’s daughter Stephanie in 1995 and her family has been fighting for justice for nearly three decades since he said.

“We’ve been through north of 25, way more than that, appeals,” Guzzardo said. “We went to the Supreme Court in New Orleans and we went all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington.”

The nation’s highest court voted 8-1 to execute Wessinger, he said, but a moratorium on the death penalty imposed by former Gov. John Bel Edwards blocked the move, Guzzardo said.

“Todd Wessnger is on death row. He gets to see his mother and father. He gets to talk to them,” he said. “Me and my wife go to the cemetery to talk to my daughter’s grave. And guess what? She doesn’t talk back to us and never will again.”

Family members of other victims testified in favor of HB 6, as well. At the same time, opponents representing Catholic bishops, Louisiana Survivors for Reform and religious leaders argued life in prison was sufficient to protect the public.

“I support the death penalty and I support House Bill 6,” Attorney General Liz Murrill wrote in a statement Tuesday. “I was glad to see it move out of committee to the House floor. Victims of crime and their families deserve justice.

“If the legislature passes a bill to expand the ways we execute violent thugs who have brutally murdered people, I will defend it in the courts.”

The House committee also advanced Carencro Republican Rep. Julie Emerson’s House Bill 4 to impose limits post-conviction appeals, as well as House Bill 7, by Rep. Laurie Schlegel, R-Metairie, to boost the minimum sentence for carjacking to five years in prison, instead of two. Under the bill, the minimum for carjacking causing injury would go from 10 years to 20, with a maximum of 30 instead of 20.

“These are violent and very traumatic crimes for victims,” Schlegel said.

House Bill 8, by Schlegel, also cleared the House committee Tuesday. It would impose a mandatory prison sentence of 25 to 99 years for distributing fentanyl in packaging that would appeal to minors. HB 4, HB 7 and HB 8 are slated for action in the House’s Wednesday evening floor session.

A half-dozen bills are on the move in the upper chamber, as well, including Senate Bill 1 by New Iberia Sen. Blake Miguez to allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Senate Bill 2, also by Miguez, cleared a Senate judiciary committee along with SB 1, to protect those with concealed carry permits who respond to threats in self defense from civil lawsuits.

“There has been cases in Louisiana where an individual acted in justifiable self defense has been forced to incur substantial litigation costs simply to prove their use of force was justified,” Miguez said.

Opponents to SB 1, known as constitutional carry, highlighted about 1,000 denied concealed carry permits in 2022 as evidence the permits are necessary.

Senators are also moving Senate Bill 3, by Turkey Creek Republican Sen. Heather Cloud to reverse reforms implemented in 2019 that blocked district attorneys from prosecuting 17-year-old criminals as adults. Cloud cited rising gang violence, deadly shootings, home invasions and carjackings, including one that left 73-year-old Linda Frickey dead last year, as the motivation behind the bill.

“Near every city, town and village across the state has suffered immensely from the consequences of raise the age legislation,” she said, pointing to a 40% increase in juvenile cases outside of New Orleans, where violent crime has skyrocketed, as well.

District attorneys, sheriffs and law enforcement backed the bill. At the same time, some academics, religious leaders and child advocates raised concerns about strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline, noting some minors convicted of nonviolent crimes could be charged as an adult.

Debate on the Senate bills continued in committees on Wednesday, with a floor voting session for the afternoon.

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