HELENA – The state Senate is again endorsing a plan to end the death penalty in favor of life in prison with no parole, giving initial support to the plan Monday after two hours of lively debate.
The chamber supported Senate Bill 236 on a 27-23 vote, with a final vote expected Tuesday. It is the second session in a row the Senate has supported an end to the death penalty.
Back in 2007 it cleared the Senate but failed in the House.
Supporters of the ban said the risk of wrongly killing an innocent person is just too great. They also argued it is more expensive to fight death penalty legal appeals than it is to imprison someone for life, and said it would be better to lock up killers for life without the possibility of parole.
Opponents argue the death penalty is a just and necessary punishment and serves as a deterrent to murder.
Most Republicans opposed the change, while most Democrats supported it. However, there were a fair number of crossover votes.
Republican Sen. Roy Brown of Billings argued his anti-abortion viewpoints in favor of protecting life would be at odds with support of the death penalty. Brown said it took a lot of soul-searching to reach that conclusion.
He said he understands the argument from colleagues — and his wife — that opposing abortion protects innocent life while the death penalty takes the life of a guilty person.
“That is pretty simple, pretty concise and easy to understand — but is it always? Is it always a guilty life?” Brown said. “Yes, mistakes do happen.”
Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, is carrying the proposed ban. He said justice is uneven and freedom can be bought in a legal system proven to make mistakes.
“When is the last time you saw a millionaire on death row?” Wanzenreid asked the Senate.
Republican Sen. Gary Perry of Manhattan said life in prison with no parole still guarantees the killer will leave the prison in a body bag.
“The question is, by whose hands will he die? Ours or God’s?” Perry said.
But opponents of the proposed ban said the state needs a way to get rid of the worst of the worst. They argued a man with life in prison has no disincentive against killing again in prison.
“There has never been an instance of a case in Montana where someone who has been executed has killed someone else,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber. “I think that is an important point that we ought to consider.”
Others argued there are cases where guilt is clear, and the crime so severe that lethal injection is appropriate.
“There are cases where someone does something so egregious against society, that it is society’s duty to take that person out of society,” said Sen. Dan McGee, R-Billings.
If the measure clears the Senate in the final vote, it will go to a House divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
Currently, 36 states have a death penalty and 14 do not, according to the Washington D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
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