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Montana Legislature Hears Republican-Sponsored Bill To Abolish Death Penalty

Rep. Adam Hertz (R) HD-96 is the sponsor of a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana.
Montana Legislature
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About 50 miles east of where two men sit on death row in Deer Lodge, Montana lawmakers are again questioning whether the state should continue killing people found guilty of heinous crimes.

Adam Hertz, a freshman Republican legislator from Missoula, introduced a bill Monday morning that would abolish Montana’s death penalty.

"To me, this bill is about redemption. Think of the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life and ask yourself if that one action, that one moment, does it define you? Should it define you? Does that moment bring with it a conclusion that you could never and should never be saved?" Hertz asks.

Attempts to abolish the death penalty in Montana have failed in every legislative session over the past nearly two decades.

Those efforts have at times passed out of the state Senate, but Montana’s House of Representatives has never approved the idea. The proposals have usually come from Democratic policymakers, but Representative Hertz says there’s a national trend of more Republicans wanting to ban death sentences.

However, the Montana GOP party platform still supports the death penalty.

Representative Hertz told the House Judiciary committee, Monday, that along with being morally against the idea of the death penalty, he doesn’t like its financial costs to the state.

"Central to this bill is the idea that, our government, which is so often wasteful, ineffective and unjust, shouldn’t be in the business of killing criminals who can safely and effectively be incarcerated at a fraction of the cost," Hertz says.

The governor's budget office is currently reviewing the financial impact of abolishing the state’s death penalty.

Betsy Griffing, a former attorney in the state's attorney general office, testified in support of the bill.

"Death penalty cases are extremely complex and take years to complete, leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars in prosecution and defense costs. The staff time required for such cases is immeasurable," she says.

Griffing worked on a death penalty case in 1995, and she says for six months before the man was put to death, half of the appellate attorneys in the attorney general's office were dedicated to that one case.

Supporters of Hertz's bill include national Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Montana Abolition Coalition. They all said the death penalty is not a good deterrent of crime and it costs the state more than putting someone in prison for life.

Others argued for removing the practice of executing prisoners on moral grounds.

"Is it always wrong to kill someone," asks Franklin Brookhart.

He’s a Bishop in the Episcopal Church and represents the Montana Association of Christians. He says the death penalty shows that the state and its citizens approve of killing for certain reasons.

"When I hear people talk about the death penalty, I sometimes hear what sounds to me like vengeance, or grief. We’re not in the business of vengeance. At least I hope we’re not in the business of vengeance. Vengeance is God’s concern, not ours," Brookhart says.

No one testified against the proposal to remove the death penalty from state law.

But, throughout the nearly two hour hearing on House Bill 366, several lawmakers in the committee pushed backed back on idea.

"I am a victim of a murder," Representative Lola Sheldon-Galloway, a Republican from Great Falls, says.

Her sister-in-law was murdered in the early 1980s. She's concerned about the bill's proposed language, replacing the death penalty with life without parole. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Adam Hertz says it's the bill's intention is for people who would have been given the death penalty to be locked up until they die.

But Sheldon-Galloway isn't sure the bill's language is strong enough. She wants to make sure inmates who would otherwise have been given the death penalty, still come out of prison in a body bag.

She's also skeptical that putting people in prison until they die is cheaper than sending them to death row.

Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway (R) HD-22.
Credit Montana Legislature
Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway (R) HD-22.

"The fiscal note isn't my issue. It's just one of the facts that Montanans need to know. For me, it’s just a theology of how I believe. Death is death. Do we do it earlier or later? And I really believe that an inmate, who has come to the Lord, would want to pay that price, on this life. Because we all know we will pay a price, here or there, why not make some of that redemption here," she says.

She says an inmate can show their willingness to pay the price for their convicted crime, through the penalty of death, rather than dying of natural causes in prison.

Eighteen states have removed capital punishment from their books; governors in a handful of others have placed a moratorium on death sentences during their terms.

While running for office, Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock said he supports the death penalty in limited circumstances.  His office did not directly answer the question of whether or not the Governor supported the current legislation to remove the death penalty.

According to the Associated Press, Montana has executed three inmates by lethal injection since 1976, most recently in 2006. The two inmates currently on death row have both challenged the state's execution methods in a lawsuit. That suit has led a judge in Helena to effectively block executions until an adequate execution drug can be found.

The House Judiciary committee did not immediately vote on the bill to remove Montana’s death penalty. That vote is expected within the next two weeks.

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