Death Penalty

In this May 2, 2012 file photo, Ronald Allen Smith addresses the families and friends of Thomas Running Rabbit Jr. and Harvey Mad Man during a clemency hearing in Powell County District court in Deer Lodge. Smith's family tearfully pleaded with the Montana Parole Board to give clemency to a man they say has changed and deserves to live. The families of the two Blackfeet cousins killed by Smith argued the death sentence should be carried out. Smith is one of two men on death row in Montana, where the 2019 Legislature is considering bills to either revise or abolish the death penalty.

As a conservative Republican and a former legislator, I used to be all in for Capital Punishment. The usual arguments in favor of the death penalty include:

1. It is less expensive than life in prison without parole.

2. These heinous criminals deserve to be killed.

3. It is a deterrent.

4. It is fair and swift.

5. The victim's families will get closure.

6. The public supports it.

Myth No. 1: Costs- Studies in 10 different states found capital cases are up to 10 times more expensive than life without parole cases. Standards are much higher to prove a capital case. Normally, the defendant will require several expensive state-appointed defense attorneys. The cost of expert witnesses, long jury selection processes, and countless other exorbitant expenses, will all be borne by the state.

Death penalty cases are very expensive. It still results in decades of incarceration.

Myth #2: These heinous criminals deserve death. I agree that in most cases they deserve death. But, I am pro-life. I believe life is precious from the womb to a natural death. Those beliefs made me question the use of capital punishment. My wife views this issue in more simple terms. She explained that “Abortion is the taking of an innocent life. Capital punishment is the taking of a guilty life.” But, is it always a guilty life? While in the legislature, I was doing some research on capital punishment and trying to remember a statement I had said about it on the House floor in an earlier session. I “googled” "Roy Brown" and the words "death penalty." To my surprise I found “After spending 15 years in a New York prison for murder, Roy Brown has been exonerated through DNA evidence and is now free. Brown is the eighth person in New York in the last 13 months to be exonerated.”

Yes, mistakes do happen. When someone is sentenced to life without parole and a mistake is later discovered, it can be corrected. But if a person is sentenced to death and there was a mistake, it might be too late to correct. As long as the death penalty remains, mistakes will happen. The Innocence Project found nearly 170 inmates on death row to be innocent.

Myth #3: The death penalty is a deterrent. Do you really think that criminals stop to ponder whether they will be executed if caught for their terrible crimes? If that were the case, Texas would have the lowest rate of murders in the country. Texas is the No. 1 state for executions. Yet the murder rate is no different than any other state. Montana has executed three people in the last 40 years. How is that going to be any sort of deterrent?

Myth #4: It is fair and swift. The death penalty is neither fair nor swift. It takes anywhere from 20  to 30 years for an execution to be carried out. The countless appeals end up costing tax payers millions of dollars. There is a vastly disproportionate share of poor and minorities that receive the death penalty. For example, a white wealthy murderer should be treated the same as a poor Native American. But the reality is very different.

Even the process of the execution itself is turning out to be less than swift as we saw in the recently botched lethal injection where the death row inmate lived hours after the drug injection. The chemicals used in the lethal injection executions are very difficult to obtain and European manufacturers refuse sale of these drugs for U.S. executions.

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Myth #5: Victim families get closure. It was amazing to me the number of victim family members who came to the legislature to testify in favor of abolition of the death penalty. They would testify how they originally wanted to make sure the murderer of their loved one received the death penalty. However, after a prolonged trial and many years of appeals, they were tortured by the reopening of all the wounds over and over again. Even when the criminal is eventually executed, most families said it did not give them closure.

Often victim families said, if they had it to do over again, they would have asked the state to sentence the murderer to life without parole.

Myth #6: The public supports the death penalty. Public support for the death penalty is definitely waning. Polls show loss of support as the public discovers the costs and delays involved with executions and learns of people on death row that were found to be innocent. When I started on this journey, I had many of my friends upset with my stance on replacing the death penalty with life without parole. But when many of them heard my explanation, they were on my side.

Now just so you do not think I have gone completely soft on these heinous criminals, I say lock them up and throw away the key for life without any possibility of parole. Frankly, death is the easy way out for many of these monsters and in fact the last man executed in Montana asked to stop the appeals and proceed with the execution since life in prison was a worse punishment for him.

Yes, the state has an obligation to make sure the public is protected and that is exactly what life without any possibility of parole accomplishes.

Contact your representatives in Helena and tell them you support abolition of the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole.

Roy Brown is the former Republican House Majority Leader.

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