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Louisiana hasn't executed anyone since 2010. That could change with new law

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Louisiana hasn't executed anyone since 2010, but that could change under a new law signed by Governor Jeff Landry that expands execution methods beyond lethal injection. Here's Molly Ryan from WRKF in Baton Rouge.

MOLLY RYAN, BYLINE: In 1995, a man named Todd Wessinger shot and killed two people at a restaurant in Baton Rouge. One of them was 27-year-old Stephanie Guzzardo, whose father, Wayne, testified before the legislature in February.

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WAYNE GUZZARDO: We have a recording of her on 911, begging, had already given him the money. He walked in, shot her dead in cold blood.

RYAN: Two years after he killed Guzzardo, a jury sentenced Wessinger to death. He's exhausted all of his appeals, but Wayne Guzzardo says he hasn't shown remorse. I met Stephanie's parents, Wayne and Carol Guzzardo, at a busy restaurant to hear more about their story.

W GUZZARDO: We been fighting it for 28 years. We're not going away. We are not going anywhere. If I die, my wife's going to carry it on. If my wife dies, my son's going to carry it on. If he dies, the rest of my family will be there.

RYAN: The couple testified multiple times in support of a bill that expands execution methods in Louisiana.

W GUZZARDO: We've been accused of being revengeful. Well, we don't...

CAROL GUZZARDO: It's not revenge.

W GUZZARDO: ...Want no revenge. We want...

C GUZZARDO: I want justice.

W GUZZARDO: We want justice for our daughter. That's all we want. We've been asking for it.

RYAN: Louisiana hasn't executed anyone since 2010. In part, that's because the state had a Democratic governor for the past eight years who opposed the death penalty. And it's also been difficult for the state to get materials for a lethal injection, the only approved method of execution, because many companies refuse to supply them. That's part of the reason lawmakers said they passed a bill to add two other methods - electrocution and gassing, also known as nitrogen hypoxia. And new Republican Governor Jeff Landry signed it - a signal that the state could soon start up executions again. Landry said at a press conference the state owes that to the victims of crime.

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JEFF LANDRY: When we fail to abide by our promises and our contractual obligations to victims out there, how can we go around and say that we have any credibility on anything else that we do?

RYAN: The Guzzardos attended the signing and praised Landry, but nitrogen hypoxia has only been used once before. That was in Alabama earlier this year, and it went poorly, according to Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University who studies the death penalty.

JOEL ZIVOT: It was, by all accounts, a prolonged, tortuous kind of event. There was struggling and straining and possibly a seizure and possibly vomiting.

RYAN: And anti-death penalty advocates say the state's headed in the wrong direction.

HELEN PREJEAN: Where else in the criminal justice system do we ever imitate the behavior of the criminal in determining the punishment?

RYAN: That's Sister Helen Prejean. She's a Louisiana native and author of bestselling book "Dead Man Walking," where she writes about her work as a spiritual adviser for death row inmates. She's accompanied seven people to their executions, and she advocates for ending the death penalty. Twelve people on Louisiana's death row have been exonerated in the last 50 years, and Prejean says the risk of killing an innocent person isn't worth it.

PREJEAN: We're human. We're frail. We're fallible. We make mistakes. Why not put the death penalty down? Who needs it?

RYAN: There are currently about 60 people on death row in Louisiana. No one is yet scheduled to be executed.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Ryan in Baton Rouge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEELING BLEW'S "OUT GETTING RIBS (SLOW)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Molly Ryan