decades on death row

The only two people on Montana's death row have been there for decades. Ronald A. Smith was convicted of killing two men in 1982 near Glacier National Park. William Jay Gollehon was sentenced to die for murdering five other inmates during a 1991 riot at Montana State Prison.

The most recent execution carried out by the state of Montana was in 2006, when David Dawson was put to death for kidnapping and murdering the Rodstein family in Billings in 1986. Dawson spent the last two years of his life arguing for his own execution. After 18 years of incarceration, Dawson preferred death and demanded an end to appeals.

Montana's experience with death sentences makes a strong case against capital punishment. Montana has virtually abolished it because no one has been executed in a dozen years. The state presently has no legal method for execution because in December 2017, a Helena District judge ruled that the state's mandated execution drug failed to meet the state's requirement for a fast-acting lethal injection.

Yet the rarely used and unenforceable law remains in state code. There are good reasons for abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life in prison without possibility of parole:

  • To avoid fatal errors. Inmates on death row in other states have been exonerated. In Montana, more than a dozen convicts have been proven innocent with DNA evidence long after they went to prison. A person wrongly imprisoned can be set free; there's no possibility of justice for a wrongly executed person.
  • The enormous cost of prosecuting a death penalty case, starting at the county trial level where, over the years, some county attorneys have chosen to pursue life sentences rather than death because of the expense to their community. Appeals continue for decades with taxpayers funding both prosecution and defense costs.
  • Taxpayers bear the costs of lifetime incarceration, but they have already paid to keep Montana's two death row inmates locked up for more than 30 years each pending execution. The Montana Office of Public Defender presently has two death penalty cases, one of which had costs of $530,000 in fiscal 2018, and $351,933 in the first six months of fiscal 2019, according to the fiscal note for HB350 prepared by the state budget office. Those legal expenses dwarf the $40,000 a year it costs to keep an inmate in Montana State Prison.
  • Family and friends of victims are reminded of the crimes again and again as appeals wind through the court systems. Some may wish to see the convict executed, but others are opposed.
  • Capital punishment doesn't deter crime. If executions deterred criminals, Texas should have the lowest murder rate in the nation because it carries out by far the most executions, but it doesn't. States that have abolished the death penalty, on average, have lower murder rates than states with capital punishment laws, according to FBI statistics.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee tabled the latest proposal to abolish capital punishment on vote of 11-8. Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula,  sponsored House Bill 350 to strike the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole. This change would assure that justice is done in sentencing the worst criminals and that victims' families would no longer wait for 30 years or more to see the sentence carried out.

Two days before the committee rejected HB350, the panel held a hearing where Montanans who favored abolition outnumbered those who wanted to keep capital punishment on the books. David Andersen, of the Montana Association of Christians, said "the death penalty is inconsistent in our view with Christian values and biblical witness."

"In using it, we continue to model the taking of life to settle scores," Susan DeBree, the mother of a murder victim and proponent of HB350, told the House committee. "We kill people to teach people they shouldn't kill."

With HB350 tabled and the bill transmittal deadline just over two weeks away, chances for reviving it are slim, but the reasons to abolish capital punishment still matter. Replacing it with life in prison would be more just, more certain and more fiscally responsible. And for some convicts, like David Dawson, living behind bars is the greater punishment.

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