Billings Gazette Guest opinion: Montana should abolish capital punishment

563ad3566dee5.imageBy Rep. Dave Hagstrom

As a conservative in the Montana Legislature, I have spoken in favor of ending the death penalty. My position is not based on feelings of sympathy for those who commit grave crimes. Far from it. My heart does break for those people who have lost a loved one to a murder’s violent evil. But even if that tiny population of victims felt better with a public execution after 30 years of appeals that could hardly be considered justice. There must be serious consequences for those who take life. Life in prison without parole proves more effective as a response to murder than the death penalty, which inevitably comes with a host of problems.

Government incompetence associated with carrying out the death penalty is staggering. Montana is one of a number of states where the death penalty exists in name only. Montana rarely executes anyone, and the death penalty functions primarily as a stimulus package for trial lawyers. Keeping the death penalty on the books comes at a cost, due to long trials and extra appeals in capital cases with the state paying for both sides in the appeals battle.

High cost of executions

The death penalty’s high cost is clear from studies on other states. North Carolina, where there hasn’t been an execution since 2006, could save $11 million a year by ending the death penalty. Kansas, despite not having carried out an execution since 1965, spends three to four times more on cases where it seeks the death penalty. California spent more than $4 billion since 1978 to execute 13 people.

Montana is not going to execute anyone anytime soon. Do we really want to keep throwing money at a hopelessly ineffective program simply to have a symbolic death penalty?

Some in Montana hope that we could become like Texas, Missouri, or Oklahoma — a state that actually executes people on a regular basis. There is absolutely no evidence, however, that states become more effective in carrying out the death penalty the more they do it. Instead, more frequent executions means more mistakes.

News recently surfaced that Oklahoma — in its first execution since a horrific botched execution last year — used the wrong drug to execute a prisoner. Though Oklahoma’s error is particularly egregious, the same general problem is afflicting states across the country. Corrections departments are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the drugs needed to carry out executions.

Wrongful convictions

Moreover, there’s no guarantee that those sentenced to death are always guilty. Since 1973, 156 individuals in the U.S. have been wrongfully sentenced to death and later exonerated. Faulty eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, junk forensic science, unreliable snitch testimony, and other factors contribute to these wrongful convictions.

Finally, the way it is carried out in these United States, there is no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to those who murder. Instead, being guaranteed multiple appeals, those murderers sit in prison always hopeful in the next appeal, at taxpayers’ expense of course. I believe a 6-by-10 cell for life without chance of parole would serve a greater deterrent, if any punishment could deter.

In short, there are an abundance of reasons not to trust the state with the death penalty. The state needs to stop the charade of sustaining a failed government program and end its death penalty for good.

Dave Hagstrom, R-Billings, represents House District 52.

Opinion Editorial originally published in the Billings Gazette