Saturday, 24 February 2007

Mont. Senate votes to abolish death penalty

Mont. Senate votes to abolish death penalty

HELENA, Mont. - The Democratic-controlled Senate on Friday gave preliminary approval to abolishing the death penalty in Montana.

After a lengthy debate in which lawmakers quoted Jesus, Thomas Jefferson and Ted Bundy, the Senate voted 27-21 to approve the measure.

The measure's sponsor, Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, implored his colleagues to "show true political leadership" and do away with capital punishment, despite polls that show the majority of Montanans support it.

Proponents of the measure said the death penalty is costly and unfair, and does not serve as a deterrent.

"I don't think we should be in the killing business," said Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish.

Opponents countered that the death penalty is needed to help victims' families.

"This is simply closure," said Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell.

The measure still faces a final Senate vote, before going to the Republican-controlled House.

Efforts to abolish the death penalty have failed in each of the past three legislative sessions. There currently are two prisoners on death row in Montana, and the state has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. The most recent execution, of convicted murderer David Dawson, occurred last year.

Opponents argued that the low number of executions proved the penalty was being used fairly for only the most dangerous criminals.

Sen. Jerry O'Neil, R-Kalispell, noted that one of the current death row inmates had killed a fellow prisoner with a baseball bat. He said some people are so dangerous that they can't be held in available prisons and the death penalty is a better alternative.

"It's obvious ... that we can't give these criminals, these animals, one scintilla of freedom in prison," he said.

Republicans largely opposed the measure; Democrats largely supported it. But there were a few members of both parties who switched sides.

One of them, Sen. Roy Brown, R-Billings, said his anti-abortion views led him to change his mind and vote for abolishing the death penalty.

"Even a guilty life is worth saving," he said.

He emphasized that the possibility of executing an innocent person made the death penalty untenable.

If Harrington's bill were to become law, Montana would join a number of states that have recently put a stop to executions.

There currently are 38 states with a death penalty. Of those, 11 have put executions on hold because of questions about whether lethal injection, the method used in Montana, is a "cruel and unusual punishment." Those states are: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee.

A court in New York ruled the punishment unconstitutional, and a former Illinois governor issued a moratorium on the death penalty seven years ago.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, said he has no qualms with the state killing people, but only when it is required during wars or shootouts between police and criminals. Executing criminals who already are in prison, he argued, is simply bad policy.

"It is not necessary for the government to kill people for revenge," Shockley said.

Other supporters of the measure said the death penalty did not offer closure for victims' families but rather increased their suffering during the lengthy mandatory appeal process.

Still others said minorities and the poor were disproportionately sentenced to be executed.

"It's not right. You can't do it fairly, you can't do it with equity, you can't do it with justice," said Sen. Steve Gallus, D-Butte.

Harrington's bill is Senate bill 306.

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