HELENA — Some families of murder victims lined up opposite side of a bill Thursday to abolish the death penalty in Montana and replace it with life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

Some religious leaders also were divided on House Bill 370, by Rep. Doug Kary, R-Billings, at a long, emotional hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. The panel took no immediate action the bill.

Kary told the committee it isn’t a debate over whether the death penalty is philosophically or morally an acceptable punishment.

“This is about whether the death penalty is working here in Montana, whether it’s an effective policy,” he said. “I would argue it is not. I would argue it’s broken. If we haven’t executed an innocent person in Montana, it’s out of sheer luck.”

Litigation over appeals by those sentenced to death here is “wasting millions of dollars on less than a handful of cases, while police, courts and prisons beg for more resources, resources that could actually keep our communities safe,” he said.

Marietta Jaeger Lane of Three Forks supported the bill. She told how she and her family were on a camping vacation to Montana in 1973 when her daughter, Susie, age 7, was taken from the tent, held captive, raped repeatedly for almost two months and then strangled to death and her body destroyed.

“There’s no crime more heinous and horrifying than the one that claimed the life of my innocent little girl,” Lane said. “For decades, I have fought to honor my little girl in the best way I know how by saying that life is sacred and by speaking out against the deliberate unnecessary taking of a human life through the death penalty.

Yet her voice and the voices of fellow Montanans family members to murder have been ignored for years, Lane said.

“We believe that our loved ones deserve a more beautiful, honorable and noble memorial than a state-sanctioned, premeditated killing of another chained, restrained person, however deserving of death we deem that person to be,” Lane said. “All it does is leave another victim and another grieving family.”

However, Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, opposed the bill, telling how his son Steve, 17, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2000.

“We found out our son had been tortured beyond belief, executed, his body burned three times with gasoline and diesel fuel trying to destroy it,” Berry said.

The legislator said his family was looking at murder trial that would have lasted several weeks.

“We would have heard over and over again in great detail about the torture tactics used on my son,” Berry said. “We would have seen color pictures of my son’s burned body — pictures I’ve never seen, pictures I never want to see,” Berry said. I want to remember my son as my son.”

He said the attorneys for the killers proposed a plea agreement for them to plead guilty in exchange for the death penalty being spared.

“Do you know how important it was to our family to not have to go through the court proceedings?” Berry asked. “Why would you take the power away from the state of Montana to work these cases.”

Supporters of the bill cited the possibility of someone innocent being put to death and the costs of appeals in death penalty cases.

Most Rev. Michael W. Warfel, Catholic bishop of Great Falls-Billings, quoted Pope John Paul II saying the “dignity of life may never be taken away.”

The Rev. Sue DeBree, a Methodist minister spoke for the bill on behalf the Montana Association of Churches, which represent churches that count 190,000 Montanans as members.

A letter was read from John Connor, who was the state’s chief prosecutor for 21 years in support of the bill. He talked about what he came to believe was the hypocrisy of prosecuting someone in a homicide case and then asking the court to take that person’s life.

“We respect human life so much that because you took one, we are going to use all our legal resources for the next 20 years to take your life,” he said.

But longtime Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said Montana prosecutors have not had any death penalty cases in which people have been wrongly convicted. Any potential death penalty case is also reviewed by a panel of assistant attorneys general before proceeding.

“We proceed as conscientiously, as dispassionately and as objectively as we can in making those decisions,” he said.

Opposing the bill was the Rev. Jordan Hall, a Baptist pastor from Sidney.

“The death penalty is prescribed in Scripture,” he said. “It is not a responsibility of citizenry. It is the responsibility of the state.”

Two Richland County commissioners from the Sidney area also opposed the bill, citing the possibility that the death penalty may be invoked for the two men charged in the 2012 kidnapping and murder of Sherry Arnold, a Sidney teacher.

“I think this would be quite a blow to the community if this were reversed,” said Loren Young, commission chair.


(10) comments

just 4 justice
just 4 justice

Those of you against the death penalty can sponsor as many of these murderers as you want! just feel free to dig into your own money and pay the state to house and feed these murders. If you thing I want to pay for them for the rest of their life you are CRAZY. Eye for an eye, Turn these murders over to the victims family so they can give the murderer the same treatment they gave the victim, whether it be a bullet in the head or maybe a knife thriugh the heart. Watch the crime rate go down then!


The bleeding liberals. We need the death penalty. the criminal has never been raised with discipline, they have no fear .He will not change in prison watching TV,eating cooked meals,and pumping iron and on my dollar.


I still say put the express lane in if to or more credible witnesses see it , then you go to the front of the line no appeals .


Can't go on eyewitness testimony. Highly fallible even when "credible." Gotta have DNA even to consider death penalty.

whats with that
whats with that

If attorneys were only paid for ONE appeal, the cost would go down, they can argue the perps "rights" on their own dime AFTER the execution.

Billings Bobcat
Billings Bobcat

The death penalty is not working. But only because our government and the courts have given more rights to the convicted criminals than to the law abiding tax paying citizens. If the courts would stop allowing the endless appeals and carry out more executions, the dealth penalty would be the deterent it is meant to be

lefty the cowboy
lefty the cowboy

The people who repeat the pro death penalty slogans never actually take a long look at the system. It is easy to say the convicted should have their right to appeal reduced or eliminated, but when you look at the record of successful appeals you discover real issues, with real problems and real questions. If Lambert and others think the system is working so well, how do they explain the fact 'death' is far more likely the sentence for minorities and the poor than for white, more affluent, prisoners convicted of similar crimes? It is true Montana has been very careful and restrained in this regard, but times change, values change... let's get rid of this barbaric anachronism while we are relatively clean.

Not in my name.


Well said.


yes, well said


Well stated. From the Innocenceproject.org: Eighteen people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release. If you support the death penalty, you support state mandated murder, this makes you an accessory to murder. The legal system in the U.S. is not even close to infallible. It males a lot of mistakes and innocent people have been executed. So unless you are Jesus and infallible, condemning a person to death is immoral. Sooner of later, you will put an innocent person to death.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.