Governor Keeping Close Eye on Death Penalty Debate

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Monday he remains in favor of the death penalty, but is keeping an open mind as a proposed ban advances in the Legislature.

Schweitzer, in an interview, said he continues to gather more information and has met with both sides of the debate — potentially opening the door for him to sign the ban if it clears both chambers.

The proposed ban has already cleared a Senate controlled by Republicans. It awaits a committee hearing later this month in a House split 50-50 between the parties, although controlled for organizational purposes by the Democrats.

Proponents argue that executing a prisoner is more costly than a sentence of life in prison and that the risk of killing an innocent person is just too great.

The governor has publicly stated support for the death penalty going back to 2004, his first election, and again last fall in a debate with his Republican opponent for governor, state Sen. Roy Brown.

“By and large I haven’t changed my overall position on the death penalty,” Schweitzer said. “I’m trying to keep an open mind. … “I’m still listening to both sides of the debate.”

The Montana Abolition Coalition, serving as an umbrella group for those pushing the ban, said it was good news that Schweitzer is open to the idea.

Jennifer Kirby, group coordinator, said they are focused on a hearing later this month in a House committee after getting the bill out of the Senate, and are now hoping to push it through the House.

“We would hope the governor would take a serious look at that,” she said.

Schweitzer said that his Catholic faith will weigh in his decision, but is not the final arbiter. The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty.

“I have 50-some year tradition of Catholicism that I have to square this with,” Schweitzer said. “But I still represent the people of Montana, not Rome.”

Schweitzer said where he grew up on a farm, people generally believe you should have to take responsibility for your actions.

Schweitzer said one argument that has caught his attention is the notion that the endless appeals in death penalty cases cost the state more than life in prison without the possibility of parole. But he’s not entirely convinced.

“It could be, however, the process needs to be changed,” Schweitzer said.