HELENA – The debate over the death penalty is ramping up as a proposed ban heads toward crucial votes in the Montana House.
The death penalty ban has already cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate. On Wednesday it came before a House committee split between the parties.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer has not ruled out signing the bill.
The ban would replace the death penalty with a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A long line of people advocating the ban included judges, former prosecutors, the Catholic church and other clergy, families of murder victims and others.
They argued, as they did in earlier Senate hearings, that it is more expensive to enforce a death penalty than it is to pay for life in prison, that the risk of accidentally executing an innocent man is too great, that it is unethical and is tough on justice and corrections system employees.
“We just don’t need to do this. We are better than this,” said John Connor, who successfully prosecuted death penalty cases when he was the Justice Department’s chief prosecutor.
Those seeking to keep the death penalty in place say any problems with the system can be fixed. They argued the death penalty is just and deters criminals.
Karla Gray, recently retired Montana Supreme Court chief justice, said she did her part on the job to uphold the law in death penalty cases; but she said each case took a toll.
“Did I and others purposely and knowingly cause the death of another human being? We did. And we have to live with it,” Gray said. “Please, get Montana out of the state-sanctioned homicide business.”
Supporters of maintaining the death penalty included religious groups, families of murder victims and legislators.
Stephanie Hoskinson-Brandt of Kalispell said her 8-year-old sister was kidnaped, raped and killed in Arizona in 1984. She said the killer is still on death row in that state.
Hoskinson-Brandt, arguing in favor of the death penalty, said a more efficient and cost-effective system is needed to handle such cases.
“I think what we need to be doing is standing here talking about toughening our judicial system,” she told the panel.
The House panel did not set a date to vote on the measure. If successful, the ban would face a vote on the full House floor.
Recently, New Mexico became just the second state after New Jersey to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Fourteen other states do not impose capital punishment.
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