Opponents of death penalty ready for fightHELENA - In 1973, James "Ziggy" Ziegler's 78-year-old father was sitting in his car waiting outside a grocery store when he was shot in the head. After the police caught the two young men responsible, Ziegler said he couldn't escape one hard fact.
"There was nothing that could happen to those two boys that would bring my father back," he said.
Instead of focusing on the anger he felt for her father's murderers, the former Yellowstone County commissioner became an outspoken critic of the death penalty.
This week, Ziegler is scheduled to join several other death-penalty opponents, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's brother, David Kaczynski, to support a bill by Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, commuting death-penalty sentences in Montana to life imprisonment. The bill is scheduled to be heard Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.On Tuesday night, Ziegler, Kaczynski and others are scheduled to speak at a public forum at Carroll College to discuss the death penalty. The various civil-rights organizations and church groups supporting Harrington's bill organized the event.
Efforts to abolish the death penalty have failed in each of the past three legislative sessions. But the bill's supporters said last summer's execution of convicted murderer David Dawson at Montana State Prison focused the public's attention on the death penalty and may help their 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 he thinks public attitudes about the death penalty are shifting. In past polls, Montanans have shown strong support for the death penalty.
"The mood and the public understanding, I think, is changing month to month, year to year," Crichton said.
He added that efforts to stop the death penalty have been gaining traction nationwide, particularly after a botched execution by lethal injection in Florida last year.
Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee ordered a 90-day halt on death penalties last week because of concerns about the protocols used in administering lethal injections, the method of execution 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 amid concerns of whether lethal injection was inhumane.
Opponents of the death penalty in Montana tried unsuccessfully to block Dawson's execution last year because of the same concerns. Attorney General Mike McGrath said the issue was likely to come up again and said the state was prepared to argue in favor of lethal injection.
"I'm not aware of anything that would make it unconstitutional," McGrath said.
Rep. Joey Jayne, D-Arlee, said she plans to introduce legislation to fund a nonpartisan committee to study the death penalty and report findings during the next legislative session. A similar committee commissioned by the New Jersey Legislature recommended last month that the death penalty there be abolish.
Jayne said lawmakers should be aware of the practical realities of the death penalty, including the high cost involved in trying capital cases and the possibility of executing an innocent person.
But the main thrust of the death-penalty opponents' energy this session will be directed at helping Harrington's bill get past the Legislature, which Crichton conceded would "take a lot of work."
Republicans, who control the House and have traditionally supported the death penalty, said their support for the penalty 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.
Several prominent Democrats also support the death penalty, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer; Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena; Senate Judiciary Chairman Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda; and House Minority Leader John Parker, D-Great Falls.
But despite the formidable opposition, repeal is a worthwhile effort, said Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, who sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty in previous sessions.
"Morality doesn't depend on the makeup of the Legislature," said Kaufmann. "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 the 1970s.
Harrington's bill is Senate bill 306.