The Chamber

From the Billings Gazette (1999):

The single-wide mobile home at Montana State Prison that serves as an execution chamber isn’t likely to be replaced by a permanent building.

In the final budget plans for the 1999 legislature, the Racicot administration has scrapped a $200,000 proposal to construct a new death chamber at the state prison in Deer Lodge. Corrections officials maintain the structure is still necessary, but other budget needs must come first.

“I’m not sure what reaction the general public of Montana would have to spending a quarter of a million dollars for upgrading this process,” said Dave Lewis, budget director for Gov. Marc Racicot.

Corrections Director Rick Day proposed this spring to ask the legislature for a permanent chamber to replace the trailer behind the maximum-security wing of the prison. The trailer, which was once used as a residence, has housed witness to the last 2 executions in Montana – murderers Duncan McKenzie in 1995 and Terry Langford in 1997.

In a recent interview, Day said the most pressing reason to build a modern death chamber is to accommodate witnesses. Currently, the small trailer seats 12 witnesses from all sides within feet of one another, without even a pane of glass partitioning them from the inmate to be executed. Day said that in most states with a death penalty, witnesses for the victim are seated away from those called by the condemned person and from the inmate being executed.

Joe Williams, head of financial affairs for the Corrections Department, said the new chamber would have provided “the adequate separation that we need not only to carry out the executions, but to separate the witnesses of the victims from the witnesses of the condemned.”

After the budget office and Corrections Department haggled over spending proposals the Corrections Department reduced its budget request to the 1999 legislature by nearly one-half, to the current $29.7 million request in budget increases over the next 2 years from $58.7 million first suggested by the department this summer. The execution chamber didn’t make the cut.

Still, Day said, he will at least raise the issue with this legislature.

Day outlined two other proposals regarding the death penalty that he will bring forward in January. The 1st would change the way witness seats are allocated during an execution, potentially allowing more victims’ witnesses. In addition, lawmakers will be asked to allow a coroner to pronounce death following an execution. Current law mandates that a medical doctor make the call, which runs contrary to the oath doctors take to preserve life.