HELENA – Montana lawmakers decided Monday that the state will be keeping its death penalty, likely ending a strong push to ban the punishment this year.
A measure to end capital punishment had passed the GOP-controlled Senate, giving-death penalty opponents hope that it could clear the Legislature this year — especially after New Mexico lawmakers passed a ban earlier this month.
But the Montana House Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 against the ban. It would be difficult, but not impossible, for those pushing the ban to bring the bill back this year.
Supporters of Senate Bill 236 argue that enforcing the death penalty costs more than mandatory life in prison without parole, and that the risk of executing an innocent man is too great. The supporters of a ban also said the death penalty is unethical and is hard on employees of the justice and corrections systems.
“We all have an obligation to make society safe, and I think life without parole does that,” said Rep. Deborah Kottel, D-Great Falls. “I think it is too easy to take the life of a person under the guise of making society safe.”
Those seeking to keep the death penalty say any problems with the current system can be fixed. They also argued the death penalty is for only the most heinous criminals, deters murderers, is used very rarely in Montana and then in only the right cases.
“I think you have people out there who are animals,” said Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings. “If the crime justifies it, you execute them. If it doesn’t, you put them in prison.”
Two inmates are on death row in Montana. One is Canadian Ronald A. Smith, who has been the subject of some debate in his home country over whether to keep seeking clemency that would change his penalty to life in prison. In the early 1980s Smith was convicted of a double murder.
Montana has executed three people since reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s. The most recent execution, of convicted murderer David Dawson, occurred in 2006.
When New Mexico banned the death penalty this month, it became just the second state after New Jersey to do so since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Fourteen other states do not impose capital punishment.
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