Monday, 5 February 2007

Death penalty opponents renew effort

Death penalty opponents renew effort


HELENA, Mont. - Some Democrats and social activists are set to try again to abolish the death penalty, despite failed efforts in every legislative session this decade.

They believe last summer's execution of convicted murderer David Dawson at Montana State Prison focused attention on the death penalty and may help efforts to abolish it.

"That execution brought the situation to the forefront more than any other event in the state of Montana could have," said Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference.

Scott Crichton of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana said death-penalty opponents are not changing their lobbying tactics dramatically this session, but instead are counting on a shift in public opinion.

"The mood and the public understanding, I think, is changing month to month, year to year," Crichton said.

Efforts to stop the death penalty have been gaining traction nationwide, particularly after a botched lethal injection in Florida last year. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered a 90-day halt on death penalties last week because of concerns about lethal injections, the only method currently used by the state of Montana.
Tennessee joined 10 other states _ Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and South Dakota _ that have suspended executions over similar questions of whether lethal injection is inhumane.

Opponents of the death penalty tried unsuccessfully to block Dawson's execution last year because of the same concerns. Attorney General Mike McGrath said that the issue was likely to come up again, and that the state was prepared to argue in favor of lethal injection.

"I'm not aware of anything that would make it unconstitutional," McGrath said

The New Jersey Legislature issued its moratorium after assigning a legislative committee to study the death penalty. Rep. Joey Jayne, D-Arlee, said she plans to introduce similar legislation to fund a nonpartisan committee that would study the death penalty and report findings during Montana's next legislative session, in 2009.

But the main thrust from death-penalty opponents will be support for a bill by Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte. The measure would commute death sentences in Montana to life imprisonment. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

The various civil-rights and church groups supporting Harrington's bill are scheduled to hold a public forum on the topic Tuesday night at Carroll College. Anticipated guest speakers include Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's brother, David Kaczynski, who also is expected to speak at the committee hearing the next day.

Crichton conceded that it was a would "take a lot of work" to get Harrington's bill past the Legislature and onto the desk of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has said he favors the death penalty. Several other Democrats besides Schweitzer also have signaled support for capital punishment.

Republicans, who control the House, have as a party traditionally supported the death penalty, saying it is based on a pragmatic approach to law enforcement.

"It's common sense that there are crimes you can do in this world that are so devastating and so wrong in society that (the death penalty) is deserved," said Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, R-Billings.

But despite the formidable opposition, trying to end the death penalty remains a worthwhile effort, said Sen. Christine Kaufmann, who sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty in previous sessions.

"Morality doesn't depend on the makeup of the Legislature," said Kaufmann, a Helena Democrat. "When it is an issue of deep moral concern, you keep trying."

Two prisoners are on death row in Montana. The state has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1970s.

Harrington, who said he opposed the death penalty when he was a delegate at Montana's Constitutional Convention, is pushing to end the punishment as his legislative career draws to a close.

"It's my last session, so we're going to do all we can to pass it," he said.

Harrington's bill is Senate bill 306.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)

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