Friday, 16 February 2007

Panel majority supports ending Montana death penalty

Panel majority supports ending Montana death penalty
HELENA — Not all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee favor abolishing Montana's death penalty, but a majority agreed Thursday that the entire Senate should have the opportunity to weigh in on the matter.

"This should be debated on the floor, though I'll probably vote against it," said Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman.

Many lawmakers echoed Jent's statement. A bill to abolish the death penalty, sponsored by Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, passed 8—4, with two Republicans and two Democrats opposing it.

"I've searched all the corners of my conscience and something inside me tells me not to support this bill," said Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda. "I don't know why. To a certain extent, I'm disappointed by that. It's one of those votes that you look to your conscience and hope that ultimately it's the right decision."

For the last decade, lawmakers have debated whether to abolish the death penalty.

Similar bills never made it out of committee during the 1999 and 2005 legislative sessions, but found their way to the floor in the 2001 and 2003 sessions.

It's not a political issue, but a philosophical and moral one, said Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel. Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, called last week's three-hour committee hearing "one of the more powerful hearings" she's heard on the death penalty.

Lawmakers who opposed the measure cited the Old Testament's an eye-for-an-eye passage, and remained adamant that society should have the option to take away the life of a convicted murderer who purposefully and knowingly commits brutal acts, McGee said.

"We are all given a choice on how we are going to live," he said. "If they (murderers) reach a point where they continue to do these things, society has the right to say, 'No. No more.'"

Supporters emphasized the irreversibleconsequences of wrongfully executing someone, and pointed to the number of exonerations in recent years because of improved DNA technology.

"I don't think we know who's innocent and who's guilty," Williams said. "The government shouldn't be in the business of executing people."

A life sentence with no chance of parole is practically a death sentence anyway, argued Sen. Aubyn Curtiss, R-Fortine. The death penalty is a better alternative to the poor quality of life an inmate leads living the remainder of their days behind bars, she said.

On a national level, 12 states have abolished the death penalty, and six states, plus the District of Columbia, have suspended the practice while courts and studies consider whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

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