Emotional crowd testifies on SB185

Via the Helena IR:
A senate bill that would abolish the state death penalty has made its way to the House Judiciary Committee, where it prompted four hours of occasionally emotional testimony and discussion Tuesday morning.
Attorneys, religious leaders, victims’ families, a former Florida prison warden, a man exonerated of a murder he didn’t commit and state representatives were among the crowd that overflowed from a first-floor hearing room to weigh in on the legislation.
Senate Bill 185, sponsored by David Wanzenried, D-Missoula, would remove the death penalty option — and all references to it — from Montana code, replacing it with life imprisonment without the opportunity of parole. The bill was narrowly passed by the Senate a month ago, with a vote of 26-24, almost entirely along party lines, with all the Democrats in favor and most of the Republicans against, with the exception of Carmine Mowbray (Polson), Jim Shockley (Victor), Donald Steinbeisser (Sidney), and Ryan Zinke (Whitefish).
At the Tuesday hearing, Wanzenried described Montana’s current death penalty system as arbitrary, ineffective and expensive, focusing more on the perpetrator than on the victim and his or her family. He said that the threat of capital punishment doesn’t seem to act as a deterrent for criminals, noting that North Dakota, which does not have a death penalty in place, has a lower murder rate than Montana. He also said that life imprisonment without parole is already utilized in the state, with 38 Deer Lodge inmates currently serving such a sentence.
He later referenced written testimony from former assistant state attorney general Betsy Griffing, now the legal program director of ACLU Montana, who served as coordinator of a death penalty task force for nearly five years. It details reasons death penalty cases are often costly, with complex procedures that require more attorneys, detailed pretrial motions, compensation for expert witnesses, and, occasionally, the location of trials in places where the jury pool will be untainted.
Aside from the financial argument, proponents of the bill discussed the celebrity status the perpetrators receive throughout the trial and appeals — especially the effect it has on victims’ families — the hypocrisy of killing someone because they murdered, and the possibility that innocent people may have been wrongfully convicted of a crime.
Opponents of the bill countered with concerns that convicted murderers could continue to kill while in prison and that keeping the perpetrators alive would cause hardship for victims’ families. They also noted that the death penalty can be used as a bargaining chip to acquire information or to negotiate guilty pleas that can prevent the need for painful testimony on the part of witnesses.
Both sides brought their share of anecdotal testimony and the occasional biblical reference.
Religious leaders from a variety of backgrounds came out in support of the bill — including evangelical pastors and a Lutheran bishop — while others noted Bible verses in support of the concept of a death penalty.
Montana residents Carolyn Madplume and Diana Cote, advocating for the bill, talked about the experience of watching the media attention that surrounded the trials of their murdered daughters. Conversely, state representatives Roy Hollandsworth (R-Brady) and Tom Berry (R-Roundup) spoke out against the bill by sharing personal stories — Hollandsworth about the murder of his father, Berry about the torture and murder of his son.
“Don’t take the death penalty choice away from me,” Hollandsworth said.
A similar bill to abolish Montana’s death penalty died in the House Judiciary Committee during the 2009 legislative session, after it had been passed by the Senate.
Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or allison.maier@helenair.com