Lawmakers weigh ending death penalty in Montana

(UM Legislative News Service) Montana has two inmates on death row, but the drug used for lethal injections is unavailable and state courts have turned down alternatives. So, they’ll sit in maximum security until they die naturally.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, told the House Judiciary Committee Monday doling out a death penalty is just a more expensive life-without-parole sentence.

“They’re going to grow however old they need to grow in order to flop over from whatever natural cause ends up coming to claim them,” he said. “So why the increased cost — the dramatically increased cost — for the exact same outcome?”

Hopkins is sponsoring House Bill 350, which would completely eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life without parole.

Peter Ohman, the public defender division administrator for the state, supports the bill. He said it costs the state about $1 million every two years to defend the two people who are on death row.

“Removal of the death penalty would certainly save our office quite a bit of money,” he said.

Marty Lambert is the Gallatin County attorney, but said he was representing himself when he opposed the bill during the public hearing Monday. He said the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous acts, and there there are multiple checks to make sure the sentence is appropriate.

“If you seek the penalty, and the jury agrees beyond a reasonable doubt that the penalty should be imposed, and then, again, the judge agrees the penalty should be imposed,” he said. “Those are some of the protections we have in place.”

Most of the 13 supporters and five opponents of the bill discussed the merits of capital punishment. Hopkins said whether or not the state should enact capital punishment is a different conversation for another time. But for now, the Legislature should focus on state spending.

“Every Legislature has the right to work its will. Take something out of law one session, put it back into law the next session, rinse and repeat,” Hopkins said. “The idea that anything is ever permanently gone in a republic, that just doesn’t make any sense.”

A bill aiming to abolish the death penalty, for a variety of reasons, has been introduced to every legislative session since 1999.

The House Judiciary Committee did not immediately vote on the bill.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.

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