HELENA — The state House deadlocked Monday 50-50 on a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana, likely killing the measure for the 2015 Legislature.
Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, the sponsor of House Bill 370, told members to “just vote your conscience” moments before the vote.
He said later that he’s undecided whether to ask the House on Tuesday to reconsider its action on HB370, saying it could be difficult to pick up a single, additional vote to force another emotional debate and vote on the floor.
Monday’s vote fell largely along party lines, with most Republicans against it — but it took three of the House’s 41 Democrats voting “no” to reject the bill, which would abolish the death penalty in Montana and substitute it with life in prison without parole. Montana has two murderers on death row.
The vote also marked the closest that death penalty opponents have come to getting a bill through the Montana House, which has blocked similar efforts for years. Bills to abolish the death penalty have been approved by the state Senate in recent legislatures, only to see them die in the House.
Supporters of the bill argued the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and costs the state millions of dollars on appeals and other prosecutorial costs.
Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, also said state prison workers shouldn’t be put in the position of having to operate “the machineries of death.”
“It is a ravaging, horrifying task to put in the hands of our state employees,” she said.
One longtime supporter of abolishing the death penalty, Rep. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, spoke as though he thought supporters had the votes to pass HB370 on Monday.
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“This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives,” he said. “It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history. …
“It is time for Montana to take her rightful place as a leader among all the great states of the union … and time to be recognized as a leader on the world stage.”
Opponents, however, offered their own emotion-charged testimony against the measure, saying the death penalty can help prosecutors extract plea bargains out of terrible criminals and spare both the state and the victims’ families the financial and emotional cost of a trial.
“How can you put a price on my emotions and what I was going through, with my family?” asked Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, whose son was brutally murdered a dozen years ago. “All this bill does is reward the murderer, handicap the prosecutor … and penalize victims like me.”
Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, who opposed the bill, said those who want to abolish the death penalty should take it to the Montana public as a referendum — but they won’t, because they know they would lose.
The public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, he said.
“When you vote for this, whichever way you vote, I hope that the people … remember in November when you run again,” he said.
The three Democrats voting against the measure were Reps. Tom Jacobson and Bob Mehlhoff of Great Falls and Gordon Pierson of Deer Lodge.