Thursday, 15 February 2007

Senate panel recommends abolishing death penalty

Senate panel recommends abolishing death penalty

HELENA — The state shouldn’t be in the business of killing people, members of a Senate panel said today in recommending the death penalty be abolished.

The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the bill, 8-4, sending it to the Senate floor for further debate, as Montana joins a number of states scrutinizing capital punishment.

Supporters of the measure by Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, said the death penalty could never be administered fairly and argued violence should not be used to stop violence. The bill, Senate Bill 306, would commute death sentences to life in prison and abolish capital punishment in the future.

“I don’t think we always know who’s innocent and who’s guilty,” Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, said. “As long as I feel there’s the potential that somebody may be innocently convicted of something, I think the government shouldn’t be in the business of executing Montanans.”

Opponents said capital punishment can be a deterrent to criminals, and must be kept on the books as an option for prosecutors.

“We’re all given a choice in this life as to how we’re going to live. ... There comes a time where a society has a right to say ‘No. No more,’” Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel, said.

Efforts to abolish the death penalty have failed in each of the past three legislative sessions. There are two prisoners on death row in Montana. The state has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, including convicted murderer David Dawson this past summer at the Montana State Prison.

Nationally, the number of death sentences handed out dropped in 2006 to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago. Executions have also fallen to their lowest level in a decade.

The death penalty is also under more scrutiny from lawmakers around the country and the courts.

Illinois is in the seventh year of its moratorium on executions, and executions are effectively halted in New York because of a 2004 court ruling.

Questions about whether lethal injection is inhumane have put executions on hold in nine states — Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush put a stop to capital punishment in Florida following the botched execution of a convicted killer in December.

In Montana, McGee said there must be consequences for murder and other heinous crimes, while Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, said he’s confident the death penalty has been used properly in Montana, unlike other states.

Other opponents suggested it’s the only appropriate form of justice for some criminals.

“There are some people who are so evil that there is not any rehabilitation ever,” Sen. Aubyn Curtiss, R-Fortine, said. “To sentence them to life in a maximum-security facility is sentencing them to a very poor quality of life.”

Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, called life in prison “a death sentence in itself” and asked lawmakers to consider if they have the right to take another person’s life.

“The system we have isn’t perfect, yet we are willing under our current arrangement to impose an absolutely perfect solution — death,” Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, said. “We are fallible. ... For those reasons, I think we need to abolish the death penalty.”

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