Saturday, 10 March 2007

Death penalty called 'broken,' 'costly,' 'crazy' during hearing

Death penalty called 'broken,' 'costly,' 'crazy' during hearing

HELENA — Capital punishment is so expensive, and applied so unfairly, that it should be banned in Montana, advocates of abolishing the death penalty told a legislative committee on Friday.

"It's a crazy system. It's broken and it's costly, and it doesn't work regardless of how you feel about the criminal, the crime and the retribution," said Elizabeth Griffing, a former assistant attorney general who once supervised death penalty cases on appeal.

Her testimony came in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole. The Senate recently approved the bill, with bipartisan support.

There are two people on death row in Montana.

Opponents to the legislation argued that the death penalty serves to deter violence and is a just punishment for horrific crimes.

Rep. Janna Taylor, R-Dayton, one of only two people who spoke against the bill, cited the case of Lana Harding, a Conrad teacher whose killer, Duncan McKenzie, was executed in 1995.

"I certainly would never presume to speak for Lana, but for the future victims — if the death penalty maybe stops one murder, one person from committing murder, then isn't it worth it?" Taylor asked.

The debate over the death penalty in Montana is playing out against a national backdrop that has seen it suspended in several states awaiting the outcome of court rulings on the issue of whether lethal injection — the execution method used in most states — is unconstitutionally cruel.

In August, the state executed David Dawson by lethal injection after the man who killed three members of a Billings family asked that his appeals be stopped.

"I am sick of doing this work," said Ed Sheehy Jr., the Missoula public defender who fought for Dawson's right to die. "I had to argue his interests ... I can tell you it is something you will never forget."

John Connor, chief criminal counsel for the Attorney General's Office, said that agency's support for the bill was a pragmatic matter.

"There will always be religious, moral and emotional reasons why the death penalty doesn't make sense, but I think the real practical consideration for the policymaker is, is this where we need to be committing our very limited, scant criminal justice resources?" Connor asked.

Because of a protracted legal process that can often drag on for more than a decade, it costs far more to put criminals to death than to keep them in prison for life, Connor said.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, said that 123 people on death rows around the country have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death.

"If Montanans continue to impose the death sentence, it is not a question of will an innocent person be put to death, but when," Harrington said.

Harris Himes, of the Montana Values Alliance, suggested that DNA testing could be used early in the legal process to ensure that innocent people were never sent to prison in the first place.

Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, said he feared that abolishing the death penalty might lead more families of murder victims to turn to vigilantism as a means of revenge.

Attempts to abolish the death penalty have failed in each of the last three legislative sessions. The House Appropriations took no action on the bill Friday.

Griffing, who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the bill, urged the panel to approve it so that it could be debated on the full House floor.

To read the full text of Senate Bill 306, view:$.startup

Contact Gwen Florio at 406-442-9493, or

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