HELENA – State lawmakers considered a proposal Tuesday to abolish the death penalty in Montana and make the maximum allowable punishment life in prison without parole.
Similar measures have come before the Legislature in previous sessions and failed. If this bill passes, it will go into effect immediately and change the sentences of two inmates currently on death row in Montana.
Senate Bill 185 sponsored by Democratic state Sen. David Wanzenried of Missoula drew emotional testimony during the hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee from relatives of murder victims, church leaders, state prosecutors and jail wardens.
“Occasionally we have a chance to talk about things that really hit close to home and define who we are as humans, this is one of those bills,” Wanzenried said.
Supporters argued the death penalty is immoral, expensive and irreversible in the case of wrongful conviction. They also said investigators can use the threat of capital punishment to manipulate suspects.
Opponents responded with interpretations of the Bible that say the death penalty is morally acceptable and said the financial costs involved in holding an inmate for life are high. The death penalty also is an important tool to avoid lengthy trials and eliminates the risk of a dangerous criminal escaping from prison, they added.
People on both sides of the argument agreed that the court process was too drawn out and could cause undue suffering to the families of victims. They differed in their opinion about whether the death penalty aggravates or helps that process.
Republican Rep. Tom Berry of Roundup gave emotional testimony in opposition to the bill, speaking about the murder of his son and how he used the death penalty as a tool for a plea bargain to avoid a costly trial that would have rehashed the moments before his son’s death.
“The power of the death penalty saved our family and many other families,” Berry said.
A similar measure passed the Senate last session but was tabled in a House committee. Wanzenried is hopeful this bill will pass despite large Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
“Interestingly enough the people that have come here share the belief in the sanctity of life,” Wanzenried said of the legislators who could pass the bill. “So I’m hoping those people would apply that judgment to this particular bill.”
Currently 15 states and the District of Columbia ban the death penalty. The Illinois Legislature recently sent a death penalty ban bill to the governor.
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