HELENA — For the second straight legislative session the Montana Senate will be considering a full repeal of the death penalty in the state, setting up what is sure to again be an emotional debate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-5 Thursday in favor of replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole just two days after the panel was inundated with several hours of testimony from both sides. Generally, Democrats are more likely to favor repealing the death penalty, but the issue also can draw the votes from some Republicans.
Senate Bill 185 gained the support of two key Republicans on Thursday, Sen. Jim Shockley and Sen. Greg Hinkle, to send it out of committee
Hinkle, of Thompson Falls, said he supported the measure because he thought the issue was bigger than the committee. He said he is sympathetic to both sides of the issue and remained unsure if he would support the measure on the Senate floor.
"I believe it needs to be on the Senate floor and have the people of Montana have a greater discussion," Hinkle said. "This issue is so big that the people need to have their own representatives have a say."
Supporters of the repeal argue the death penalty is immoral, expensive and irreversible in the case of wrongful conviction. They also say investigators can use the threat of capital punishment to manipulate suspects.
Those who want to keep the death penalty argue that the Bible supports the punishment and the death penalty is an important tool to avoid lengthy trials. Opponents also argue that the penalty eliminates the risk of a dangerous criminals escaping from prison and makes sense for those who commit heinous crimes.
Sen. Anders Blewett, of Great Falls, said capital punishment is unfair because it is disproportionally levied against the poor and minorities, while the "well-healed" can afford good legal representation to avoid the death penalty.
"It is long overdue. We have evolved beyond putting people to death knowing full well we have killed people who are innocent," Blewett said.
SB 185 was sponsored by Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula. The hearing Tuesday drew emotional testimony from relatives of murder victims, church leaders, state prosecutors and jail wardens.
A similar measure passed the Senate last session but was tabled in a House committee. Wanzenried hopes this bill will pass, despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia ban the death penalty. The Illinois Legislature recently sent a death penalty ban bill to the governor.