"Louisiana has seen dramatic decline in executions, in line with national trend," is the title of the New Orleans Times-Picayne report written by Michelle Krupa and Katy Reckdahl.
In 1987, eight men were electrocuted at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola within the span of eleven weeks, during a decade when 18 state inmates were executed for crimes they committed.
But the past 10 years, have been quiet ones for Louisiana's death row, with three inmates put to death by lethal injection. The most recent, Thursday's execution of Gerald Bordelon, happened only because the convicted killer waived his appeals, hastening his death by many years. His was the first execution since 2002, when Leslie Dale Martin was executed for the rape and murder of a Lake Charles woman in 1981.
The dramatic decline in Louisiana executions since 1987, when the state briefly led the nation in that statistic, comes at a time when, nationally, both executions and the imposition of new death sentences have waned significantly.
For victim's families, the long wait between conviction and lethal injection -- during which inmates are given several layers of appeals -- can be interminable, advocates say. They question why the appeals process isn't in some way sped up: Texas, after all, still executes convicts at a steady clip.
"It shouldn't take them that long to decide whether somebody was really and truly found guilty," said Beverly Siemssen, president of Victims and Citizens Against Crime, pointing to cases that take more than decade to wind through the appeals process. "That is a lot of time to put a family through."
Lawyers for death row inmates counter that the reversal rate for death sentences in Louisiana is significant, underscoring the need for caution. Fifty percent of cases considered by federal judges since 2000 have been sent back to the state court for new trials, said Sarah Ottinger, executive director of the Capital Appeals Project.
The advent of DNA technology, which has exposed wrongful convictions -- including many from death rows across the country -- has changed some people's confidence in death penalty verdicts. Since 1989, seven men have left Louisiana's death row as free men after they were exonerated based on DNA and other evidence.
A committee created by the Louisiana Supreme Court last year plans to examine the entire process for post-conviction appeals, both for defendants in capital cases and those serving other prison sentences.
"There is an obvious concern with trying to expedite the process, so that error can be identified as quickly as possible," said Cheney Joseph, an LSU law professor who serves on the panel. "If a conviction is a valid one, it will be affirmed and the law would take its course."
The change in the execution rate in Louisiana between the 1980s and now is explained, in part, by the fact that more and better-financed lawyers are handling the appeals process for these inmates, said Denny LeBoeuf, an attorney who actively handled death row appeals in Louisiana for many years.
"In the 1980s, we had no lawyers or very few lawyers working with no resources or time," said LeBoeuf, who is now the director of the ACLU's John Adams Project in New York.
Since the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Orleans Parish juries have condemned 38 defendants to death. But a recent tally by attorneys for death-row inmates calculated that courts have found errors in 25 of those sentences, or nearly two-thirds. In some cases defendants were retried, resulting in convictions on lesser charges, while in others defendants were released.
Many of these reversals occurred during "post-conviction" appeals, which typically occur at least several years after conviction. The direct appeal, during which lawyers can only challenge decisions made during the trial, is the first level of review by the courts.
During the post-conviction process, defense attorneys obtain the entire case file, allowing them to see whether prosecutors or law enforcement withheld any evidence that might have helped the defense. These files can be voluminous, requiring thousands of hours to work through, said Gary Clements, director of the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana.
The less-thorough appeals process in Texas is one Louisiana shouldn't strive to emulate, Clement said, pointing to the 2004 execution of a man who forensic experts later concluded wasn't responsible for a house fire that killed his three children.