HELENA – A Montana House committee tabled a bill to abolish the death penalty Tuesday shortly after hearing testimony, as the legislature closes in on next week’s transmittal deadline.
Democratic Rep. Ed Stafman of Bozeman told members of the House Judiciary Committee he brought the bill to replace the death penalty with the punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole to eliminate the chance of killing an innocent person, reduce the involved legal costs and get rid of its inconsistent application.
Other supporters of Stafman’s bill include religious leaders, faith organizations, human rights groups and defense attorneys who said there are few attorneys who are qualified to defend capital crimes.
Amy Sings In the Timber, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project, said there have been wrongful murder convictions and a prosecutor’s threat to seek the death penalty can be used as leverage to negotiate a plea agreement.
State lawmakers have rejected efforts to repeal the death penalty for at least the past two decades.
The last execution in Montana was in 2006. In recent years, Montana has not had access to an “ultra fast-acting barbiturate” as required by state law to carry out capital punishment. The 2021 Legislature is moving forward a bill to change the drug requirements to carry out executions.
Two Montana inmates currently face the death penalty.
William J. Gollehon has been convicted in seven murders, including a Billings woman in 1985, fellow inmate Gerald Pillegi in 1990 and for his involvement in the deaths of five men during a 1991 Montana State Prison riot, including one who was scheduled to testify against Gollehon in Pillegi’s death.
Ronald Allen Smith was sentenced to death in March 1983 for kidnapping and killing Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit in August 1982.
Opponents of Stafman’s bill argued the death penalty should still be on the books in cases where someone kills a law enforcement officer or kills someone in prison after being sentenced for murder.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said a decision to pursue a death penalty is made in consultation with the attorney general’s office to make sure the decision is made objectively because such murders are “horrific, they are committed by people who have no respect for human life.”
His office is seeking the death penalty against Patricia Batts of West Yellowstone, who is charged with deliberate homicide in the February 2020 death of her 12-year-old grandson, James Alex Hurley. Hurley was abused my numerous family members, prosecutors said.
Society should retain the ability to impose the most serious remedy in cases of the most serious crimes, said Broadwater County attorney Cory Swanson, who initially sought the death penalty in the 2017 killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Mason Moore. Swanson withdrew the death penalty in July 2018 after an analysis of defendant Lloyd Barrus’ history of mental illness.
Stafman’s bill was set aside on an 11-8 vote.
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