Louisiana House committee OKs nitrogen gas executions, electrocutions 

BATON ROUGE — A proposal to legalize one new and one previously used method to put condemned criminals to death in Louisiana gained approval Tuesday from a legislative committee. The legislation would also shield records related to executions from the public. 

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice unanimously approved House Bill 6 by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, which adds nitrogen gas and electrocution to the legal methods the state can use to execute people. 

Louisiana banned execution by electric chair in 1991, when it was last used, in favor of lethal injection. At the time, Louisiana faced a court challenge from plaintiffs who alleged electrocution was an unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. It’s been 14 years since Louisiana executed someone by lethal injection, a method that has been difficult to carry out in states that use it because of a shortage of drugs needed. Death penalty proponents have argued drugmakers are reluctant to increase supplies because of the negative stigma.    

Toward that end, Muscarello’s bill also shields records related to executions, including who provides the drugs used. Criminal and civil penalties would apply to anyone who makes the information public. 

Muscarello and other Republicans who support the death penalty – including Gov. Jeff Landry – say the state has a responsibility to fulfill its obligations to victims of those on death row. 

Alabama became the first state to execute someone via nitrogen hypoxia last month. Kenneth Eugene Smith faced the death penalty for a 1988 murder. Since he was executed, multiple states have looked to add the method. 

Through nitrogen hypoxia, a mask is affixed to the condemned prisoner’s face. Pure nitrogen gas is pumped through, causing the individual to die from a lack of oxygen. 

Alabama faces a federal lawsuit over the use of nitrogen hypoxia from a death row inmate. The court complaint describes January’s execution as “a human experiment that officials botched miserably.” 

Under Muscarello’s proposal, lethal injection would remain Louisiana’s preferred method of execution. He added the public records exemptions to incentivize companies to sell their drugs to the state for executions, he said. 

Most of the testimony related to Muscarello’s bill came from opponents of expanding the death penalty. Several family members of those slain by death row inmates gave powerful testimony in support. 

Among the latter was Wayne Guzzardo, father of Stephanie Guzzardo, who was shot and killed in a 1995 robbery at a Baton Rouge restaurant alongside another employee. 

Wayne Guzzardo described the 911 call recording in which his daughter begged for her life – to no avail. 

Stephanie Guzzardo’s killer, Todd Wessinger, has been on death row since 1997

“He’s on death row,” Guzzardo said. “He gets to see his mother and father. He gets to talk to them. Me and my wife go to the cemetery to talk to our daughter. And guess what? She doesn’t talk back.” 

One opponent of Muscarello’s proposal read a letter from anesthesiologist Dr. Joel Zivot, who described the medical realities of Kenneth Eugene Smith’s execution in Alabama. 

“During his execution, observers reported witnessing Mr. Smith dry heaving, a common sign of vomiting,” Zivot wrote. “I was concerned Mr. Smith would experience terror and pain as his body detected the low oxygen in his blood. Through his clear mask, the signs of terror on his face were easy to see. He bumped and strained as he slowly suffocated.” 

“The eyewitness accounts of Mr. Smith’s execution are consistent with this. The state of Alabama predicted, based on nothing, that the prisoner would be unconscious in seconds and dead in minutes. Multiple witness accounts confirm my predictions,” Zivot added. 

Muscarello declined to give closing remarks on his bill. He merely placed a framed photograph of Stephanie Guzzardo on the witness table and asked the committee to approve his bill. 

Muscarello’s bill will next be heard in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, where lawmakers will discuss the public records exclusion.

Editor’s Note: The following article from author Piper Hutchinson was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization with a mission to cast light on how decisions in Baton Rouge are made and how they affect the lives of everyday Louisianians. Read more from The Louisiana Illuminator @ www.lailluminator.com.

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