Death penalty debate stirs emotions in Helena


HELENA – There was some emotional testimony at the Capitol in Helena on Tuesday as lawmakers discussed a proposal that would make Montana one of 18 states to abolish the death penalty.

State Senator Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula) is sponsoring the bill which replaces the death sentence with life in prison without parole.

“Capital punishment is absolute, there is no re-dos, there is no repeal, there is no amendment. It is final,” Wanzenried said.

He claims that the cost of executing a criminal is 4 to 10 times more expensive than keeping the criminal in prison.

Several people testified during the hearing. As a corrections officer, Ron McAndrew participated in the execution of eight criminals.

“I myself was haunted by the men I was asked to execute in the name of the State of Florida,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee

McAndrew is now working with the Montana Abolition Coalition to abolish the death penalty in Montana.

“Lock them in a little cage, 6 x 9 feet, made out of concrete and steel with a steel bunk, and a fire-retardant mattress that is about three inches thick, a stainless steel toilet without a lid and leave them there for the rest of their natural life,” he said.

Also among those arguing for the abolition of the death penalty were a mother whose daughter was murdered, and a man who was wrongfully charged with homicide.

Opponents of the bill say the criminals on death row deserve to be there.

Abolishing the death penalty in my opinion is not the solution to this problem. We need to come to grips with the fact that there are people among us who kill, that’s just what they do. There are people in this world that are evil,” commented former Montana State legislator Jeff Laszloffy.

Supporters of the death penalty claim it provides a choice for victims and prosecutors.

“You don’t have to use it. It could only be pursued in cases where there are multiple witness and/or solid forensic evidence that leave absolutely no doubt as to the guilt of the defendant,” Cindy Swank said.

Also among those arguing against the bill were State Representative Roy Hollandsworth (R-Brady), who said that his father was murdered, and the criminal was given life in prison, which now has Hollandsworth’s mother living in fear.

State Representative Tom Berry (R-Roundup) also addressed the committee, saying that his son was murdered and that he is an advocate for the death penalty

Harris Himes, a pastor from Hamilton, spoke against the bill and said that if Jesus were alive, he would support the death penalty.

Wanzenried says death row inmates become celebrities and their punishment is short-lived; he said that if they are locked up they will be held accountable for their actions every day for the rest of their life.

Currently there are two inmates in the Montana State Prison who are scheduled for execution.