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Montana examines death penalty after judge blocks executions

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 6, 2017

By Matt Volz Associated Press

HELENA – Montana legislators are taking another look at whether to abolish the death penalty after a judge blocked the state from carrying out executions because it has no access to a drug used in lethal injections.

Clergy, young conservative lawmakers and an exonerated Arizona death-row inmate urged the House Judiciary Committee on Monday to pass a bill abolishing the death penalty. The maximum penalty would become life in prison without parole, under the measure by Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula.

“To kill a person for having killed a person seems to me to make no sense,” said Bishop C. Franklin Brookhart Jr. of the Episcopal Church of Montana. “We’re not in the business of vengeance – at least I hope we’re not in the business of vengeance.”

Bills to abolish the death penalty have been introduced and failed in every legislative session since 1999, which is as far back as the state Legislature’s online bill-tracking archive goes. Death penalty opponents came closest in the last session two years ago, when the measure died on a 50-50 House vote.

If the bill to abolish the death penalty passes this year, Montana will become the sixth state since 2010 to either overturn or place a moratorium on executions. Montana is similar to other states that have recently overturned their death penalties: It carries out relatively few executions, and it has previously tried several times to abolish the law, said Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham.

“I think Montana fits well within that pattern,” Dunham said. “It does not aggressively carry out the death penalty.”

Recently, more Republican lawmakers such as Hertz have been behind the abolition efforts in some states. They say the death penalty goes against their values that a person has a right to live from natural birth to natural death, and that housing death-row inmates and paying their court costs is too expensive.

“Some of us supported death penalty for years, but we’ve given a critical look at it,” said Marc Hyden, an advocacy coordinator for the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “Many of us don’t trust the government to deliver mail or fill potholes, so why would we trust them with a dangerous government program that metes out death to its citizens?”

Montana has executed three inmates by lethal injection since 1976, most recently in 2006. There are currently two inmates on death row, both of whom challenged the state’s execution methods in a lawsuit that led to a Helena judge effectively blocking executions until an adequate drug can be found.

The state had used sodium pentothal as a barbiturate in its two-drug lethal injection method, but that drug is no longer manufactured in the U.S. and it can’t be imported. District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled in October 2015 that the state’s recommended substitute for sodium pentothal doesn’t meet the requirements detailed in state law and could not be used in executions, leaving the state without an alternative drug to conduct executions.

Bill Comstock, a member of the Montana branch of the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said the judge’s ruling means Montana is now wasting money to house two death-row inmates who will likely never be executed. “We’re essentially throwing away money for nothing,” Comstock said.

The House Judiciary Committee did not take immediate action on the bill, though several lawmakers on the panel indicated their opposition. One, Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, said she is not convinced that a convicted murderer who is sentenced to life won’t eventually walk away from prison.

“We believe that person’s going to leave prison in a body bag,” Sheldon-Galloway said. “We have no guarantee here that that’s going to happen.”

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