Montana Senate endorses repeal of death penalty

In a close vote, the state Senate on Monday endorsed a bill to repeal the death penalty for the second straight legislative session.

Senate Bill 185 was supported in a 26-24 vote, with all the chamber’s Democrats along with four Republicans arguing that it’s time to get rid of the punishment in favor of life in prison without parole.

Lawmakers opposed to the measure argued that capital punishment still serves a necessary purpose.

Sen. David Wanzenried, the Missoula Democrat carrying the bill, said the death penalty is not fair and argued the punishment does not bring closure for victims nor does it serve as a deterrent to murder.

“Our current system can’t be made fair and it can’t be made infallible,” Wanzenried said.

Supporters of repeal argued that the risk of putting an innocent person to death is too high, the punishment is disproportionally levied against minorities and the poor, and the financial cost of the death penalty procedure is too great.

“Whether you are or not with the moral issue, there is a practical issue of spending money,” said Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish.

Arguments from both sides focused on whether or not the state has a moral right to kill a convicted murderer.

“I don’t think anybody has a right to take anyone’s life in any situation,” said Sen. Donald Steinbeisser, D-Sidney.

Like many, Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, said he struggled with the morality question at the heart of the proposal.

“I wrestle with this issue of taking of another human life,” he said.

In a committee vote last week, Hinkle had voted in favor of the repeal in order to allow debate on the Senate floor. But in the end, Hinkle opposed the repeal because he argued there is a distinction between the lives of the innocent and convicted killers.

Other opponents of the repeal argued that the death penalty gets dangerous criminals out of prison. They also argued it can help prosecutors – despite concerns from those seeking repeal that investigators can use the threat of death to manipulate suspects.

“This is the hammer that people use to negotiate to get that guilty plea,” said Republican Sen. Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell.

A similar measure also narrowly passed the Senate with bipartisan support in 2009 but was tabled in a House committee.

It first faces one more Senate vote Tuesday – but it is likely to face a tougher road in the House, which is controlled by Republicans 68-32. Wanzenried said he remains hopeful the measure will pass, despite the much larger Republican majority this session.

The repeal narrowly made it out of committee last week after the panel was inundated with several hours of testimony from relatives of murder victims, church leaders, state prosecutors and jail wardens.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia ban the death penalty, and the Illinois Legislature recently sent a death penalty ban bill to the governor.

Stephen Dockery



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