Gov. John Bel Edwards

The governor of Louisiana is a powerful fellow, but it was verging on cruelty for John Bel Edwards to raise hopes of clemency among the 56 of the state's 57 death row inmates who have asked for it.

It was never going to happen.

Edwards wanted the state pardon board to consider a mass commutation that would have come close to depopulating death row. Hardliners wanted to achieve the same happy result with swift, fatal intravenous shots all around.

The collapse of Edwards' attempt to gum up the wheels of justice means we can now proceed in a more orderly — or piecemeal — fashion with the penalty prescribed by law.

When it comes to taking or sparing the lives of murderers, strict rules apply, as indeed they should in matters of life and death. The stakes are high and Baton Rouge is fresh out of magic wands, so we must go above and beyond in the quest for justice. We do not take a life in Louisiana unless all the appropriate forms have been completed, signed, witnessed and notarized. Only then are we ready to dispatch a sinner to his or her Maker.

Edwards' plan to find a shortcut through the bureaucratic maze of capital punishment was doomed from the start because these commutation requests were not filled out according to the rules. Crucial information was lacking in various places, and the general impression was of a governor either pulling rank or a fast one.

It was clearly a tendentious exercise. Edwards makes no secret of his opposition to capital punishment, while the state in general seems divided on the issue. Bills to abolish capital punishment never quite make it through the Legislature.

There has not been an execution in Louisiana since 2010, when Gerald Bordelon went willingly to his death for the murder of his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The last convict to die involuntarily in Angola's death house was Leslie Dale Martin in 2002.

Although Louisiana has not joined most Western democracies in abolishing the death penalty, it seems fairly obvious that we are no longer willing to carry it out. We keep it on the books as proof of our red-blooded commitment to law and order, but the thought of it makes us squeamish.

The rigmarole required before clemency may be granted is a tribute to the legal profession's ability to find highly lucrative pretexts for the largely pointless delay. Juries do not seem to relish execution these days anyway.

Since hardly anyone would notice the difference if we abolished capital punishment tomorrow, the case for keeping it may not be a strong one.

That would certainly be Edwards' view. He presumably hoped to establish a less meticulous clemency procedure before his gubernatorial term expires, but time has passed him by. The best he can hope for now is that a few death row inmates will get sprung before a new play-it-by-the-book governor takes over.

It has been apparent for years that Louisiana law schools produce far more attorneys than even such a litigious state as ours can handle. Next thing you know they'll be filing writs for food. 

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