Death penalty, stock

A lawmaker wants to abolish the death penalty in Montana, saying it's financially irresponsible to spend more money on the high-cost cases since prisoners in the state cannot be put to death and end up serving what amounts to life-in-prison sentences.

The state cannot conduct executions because a 2015 ruling from a Helena District Court judge found the drug called for in state law does not meet an "ultra-fast" designation also required by law. There are two male inmates on death row at the state prison in Deer Lodge who have been there an average of 31 years. 

Rep. Mike Hopkins, a Republican from Missoula, is carrying House Bill 350. He told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday the state should abolish the death penalty because that would match what's happening in practice.

"How is it not fundamentally our job as legislators to review programs and to review policies to see if they are accomplishing what they are supposed to accomplish?" Hopkins asked. "It is a death penalty under which no one dies. It costs way more money than what these individuals are experiencing right now, which is life in prison."

Peter Ohman, who is administrator of the state Office of the Public Defender, said death penalty cases cost the agency about $1 million over the two-year biennium in defense costs. Ohman, who spoke in support of Hopkins' bill, also said it's difficult to find attorneys who meet qualifications required to try death penalty cases.

Susan DeBree, of Sheridan, said her daughter was murdered in Great Falls about 30 years ago, and it caused her to consider the death penalty "up close and personal."

"In using it, we continue to model the taking of life to settle scores," DeBree said. "We kill people to teach people that they shouldn't kill."

Frank Knaack, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project, said it is too risky to put people to death for a crime they may not have committed. Since 1997, 14 Montanans have been exonerated of crimes, he said, including four people wrongly convicted of murder. 

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David Andersen, with the Montana Association of Christians, told the committee “the death penalty is inconsistent in our view with Christian values and the biblical witness.”

Jeff Laszloffy, who is president of the Montana Family Foundation but said Monday he was not speaking on the group's behalf, spoke in opposition to the bill. Laszloffy said the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens.

"We've heard a lot of talk today about Judeo-Christian values ... but there are two hats here. There is the hat of the Christian, but there is also the hat of the civil servant. And God set up both institutions, the church and civil government. And it's one of the primary responsibilities of civil government to protect the citizen."

Laszloffy also said while there was a lot of discussion about cases of people being wrongly convicted, victims of crimes needed to be talked about, too.

"We talk about the possibility of an innocent person being put to death, but in 100 percent of the cases of the victims, innocent people were put to death," Laszloffy said. "A death penalty was carried out on them."

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill Monday. 

The last time someone was put to death in Montana was 2006. Legislators have explored abolishing the death penalty for at least 20 years, and in the 2015 session, a bill that would have done so died on a split vote in the House. 

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