Sunday, 4 February 2007

In Montana: Death penalty needs to be abolished

In Montana: Death penalty needs to be abolished
By The Standard Staff - 02/03/2007

After 30-plus years of public service, I am coming to the end of my term in the Montana Senate. It seems altogether fitting that I conclude my service fighting for an issue I fought for when I began as a member of the Montana Constitutional Convention in 1972. I am pleased to sponsor Senate Bill 306 — a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana.

I opposed capital punishment back then, and for numerous reasons, I oppose it even more today.

One major reason is the simple fact that since 1973, more than 123 death row inmates have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were accused. Innocent people are being executed in the United States. The Stanford Law Review has detailed 23 cases where innocent people have already been executed. Columbia University professor James Liebman conducted a study of thousands of capital sentences reviewed by courts in 34 states from 1973 to 1995 and concluded, “One in twenty death row inmates is later found not guilty.” In Montana, wrongful convictions have already occurred in non-capital cases. For example, Jimmy Ray Bromgard was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated burglary and sexual intercourse without consent. After almost 16 years in prison, he was exonerated by updated DNA technology.

The death penalty comes from earlier days of barbarism when slavery, whipping, branding, and other corporal punishments were commonplace. Like those other practices, state-sponsored executions have no place in a civilized society. Of all Western industrialized nations, the United States alone engages in this lethal practice.

Capital punishment denies due process of law. Its imposition is often arbitrary — forever depriving an individual of the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or the setting aside of a death sentence.

Opposing the death penalty does not mean sympathy with convicted murderers. Murder clearly demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. Murder is abhorrent and a policy of state- sponsored killing is immoral. Killing more people only epitomizes the tragic brutality of violence, rather than utilizing reason to solve difficult social problems.

A society that respects life does not deliberately kill human beings. An execution is a violent public spectacle of official homicide, one that endorses killing to solve problems — the worst possible example to set for the citizenry. The benefits of capital punishment are illusory, but the bloodshed and the resulting destruction of community decency are real.

Approximately 90 percent of those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer when they were tried. A defendant’s poverty, lack of firm social roots in the community, inadequate legal representation at trial or on appeal — all these have been common factors among death-row populations.

In Montana, the death penalty is applied discriminatorily. Seventy-four individuals have been executed in the name of the territory and state of Montana. Of those, almost 23 percent have been minorities.

According to U.S. Census data from 1870 to 1990, the minority population has never been more than 11.1 percent in Montana. Thus, the rate of executions of minorities in Montana is almost twice the highest-occurring minority percentage of the population.

Research shows that juries are more likely to convict defendants of color. Between 1995 and 2000, 75 percent of federal cases in which juries recommended the death penalty involved black or Latino defendants.

Does the death penalty deter crime? To cite one example among many, the FBI reports that homicide rates for North Dakota, Montana’s only abolitionist neighbor, are consistently lower than Montana’s rates of homicides.

Does the death penalty save money? Every state that has done a cost study of its death penalty system has found it to be substantially more expensive than cases where prosecutors instead seek life without parole.

For the above reasons and many more, I hope you will join me in abolishing the death penalty in Montana.— Democrat Dan Harrington represents Butte’s Senate District 38. He has served two terms in the Senate and 12 terms in the House, starting in 1976.

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