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By MIKE DENNISON Missoulian State Bureau (from February 16-17, 2009)
HELENA - After a 90-minute emotionally charged debate, the Republican-controlled state Senate Monday endorsed a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana.
Supporters of Senate Bill 236 said the death penalty is a costly, imperfect punishment that doesn't deter crime and does more harm than good for the families of those who are horribly murdered.
“In order for punishment to be effective, it must be swift and it must be sure,” said Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, the sponsor of SB236. “The death penalty is neither.”
Opponents argued just as passionately that Montana should maintain the harshest penalty for those who commit the most heinous crimes.
“This state needs to have an ultimate form of punishment for those people who have done something that is so egregious to society that we have a bound duty to take that person out of society,” said Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel.
Yet by a 27-23 vote, supporters of the bill carried the day, setting up a final binding vote Tuesday that would send the measure to the House for its consideration.
Six Senate Republicans joined 21 Democrats in voting for the bill, while 21 Republicans and two Democrats voted “no.”
SB236 would abolish capital punishment in Montana, substituting the death penalty with life in prison without parole. If the bill becomes law, the two men on death row at the Montana State Prison would be re-sentenced to life in prison.
Wanzenried said the death penalty, while sometimes advertised as bringing “closure” to relatives of the crime's victim, does nothing of the sort.
Instead, it creates a litany of publicized appeals that forces the family members to relive the crime again and again, he said.
“The current system does nothing to take care of the family of the victims,” Wanzenried said. “The current system simply prolongs the pain and agony of the victims.”
Supporters also invoked morality and spirituality in arguing to abolish the death penalty, saying only God should take a life, and that life in prison is perhaps a harsher punishment.
“We are the judge today as to whether someone will die at our hands,” said Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan. “It is a death sentence (to be sentenced to life in prison). The question is not whether the (criminal) will die. The question is, by whose hand will he die? Ours? Or God's?”
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said convicted murderers will be held accountable, whether they are executed or not: “If we vote for this, the people on death row, they are going to pay for their mistake. If they don't pay for it on this Earth, they're going to pay for it regardless. That's the law of the Creator, that's the law of the universe.”
Opponents of the measure argued that the death penalty does deter crime, particularly for murderers or other violent offenders already in prison.
“(For) violent criminals who have already murdered at least once, and the worst they can get is life without parole, what's to deter them from killing another inmate, the first chance they get?” asked Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman.
They also doubted claims that life sentences would lessen appeals for convicted murderers, or that it would somehow make prisons or society any safer.
“I think my job here is to stand up for the victim,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber. “The minute that that murderer has been put to death, he will not have additional victims.”
Balyeat also said the death penalty is a threat that prosecutors can use to extract guilty pleas from murderers, and noted that capital punishment has been handed out in only a few cases in Montana in the past 30 years.
Wanzenried said while Montana apparently hasn't had any innocent people on death row, mistakes can be made in the criminal justice system, and that he doesn't want to take the chance of executing an innocent person.
He also quoted the statement of a woman whose daughter had been kidnapped and murdered, and who opposes the death penalty:
“She said, ‘To kill someone in (my daughter's) name would be to violate and profane the goodness of her life. The idea is offensive and repulsive to me.' ”
Copyright © 2009 Missoulian