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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Another Legislative Session, Another Bill To Abolish Montana's Death Penalty

Montana Capitol.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio

The long running debate over executing state prisoners is again surfacing in the Montana legislature as two men sit, condemned to die, in Deer Lodge.

In every regular legislative session this century, Montana lawmakers have questioned the ethics and financial costs of the state killing people who commit heinous crimes.

The latest attempt to abolish the death penalty isHouse Bill 350, carried by Missoula Republican Mike Hopkins.

“It’s a death penalty under which no one dies,” Hopkins told the House Judiciary Committee, as he described the current law, Monday. “It does the opposite of what it supposed to accomplish, and it does it in one of the dumbest ways possible, it costs way more money than what these individuals are experiencing right now, which is life in prison.”

Hopkins characterised the state’s  death penalty law as expensive and inefficient

Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula is sponsoring a measure seeking to abolish the death penalty. File photo.
Credit Montana Legislature

The two men who are currently on death row in Montana have been there for around 30 years each, Hopkins pointed out during his bill’s first hearing Monday.

A fiscal note from the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning says death penalty cases are unpredictable and so it’s difficult to quantify the cost or savings to the state in abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole.

However the Public Defender's Office says the two capital cases the office is handling now cost about a half a million dollars a year to staff.

Other arguments for getting rid of the death penalty were philosophical.

"We kill people to teach people that they shouldn’t kill people,” Rev. Susan DeBree with the United Methodist Church, in Sheridan, said.

Her daughter, Gretchen, was murdered almost 30 years ago in Great Falls. Debree says the killer was never found.

"But my personal reasons for supporting the abolition of the death penalty come from the perspective of believing that in using it we continue to model taking of life to settle scores,” DeBree said.

However several opponents of abolishing the death penalty say the law helps keep potential other victims safe.

Jeff Laszloffy is the president of the Montana Family Foundation, although he says he spoke for himself in support of the death penalty.

"What do we do with a person that commits murder, is sent to prison, and then continues to murder? Maybe not just once, maybe subsequent murders” Laszloffy said.

Laszloffy points out death row inmate William Jay Gollehon was already serving a life sentence on a 1985 deliberate homicide conviction when he beat and killed another prison inmate in the early 1990s.

The other death row inmate is Canadian Ronald Allen Smith, who was sentenced to death in 1983 for killing two people near East Glacier.

The last state execution in Montana was in 2006, and although Montana’s death penalty law is still on the books it’s unclear if or when the state will carry out another execution.

In 2015, a state judge ruled that one of the drugs used in the Montana Department of Corrections lethal injection mix did not meet the legal requirement of being “ultra-fast acting." That means the state doesn’t currently have a legal alternative to execute death row inmates.

While the Montana Senate has passed a bill to abolish the death penalty three times over the last decade-and-a-half, the idea hasn’t won support in the House.

Thirty one states in the country have the death penalty.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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