HELENA – The House Judiciary Committee heard an hour of powerful testimony from people in favor of abolishing the death penalty, who shared a comprehensive list of reasons for their support.
Those who testified included a man wrongly sentenced to death, the mother of a murder victim, and attorneys who were haunted by years of adherence to the death penalty system. Conservative legislators and religious leaders asked the committee to consider the ethics of a system where a death results in more death. Several people said eliminating the death penalty is a cost-saving measure.
Bills to abolish the death penalty have never made it off the House floor. Last session, a bill to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole came close, but died in the house with a 50-50 vote, largely along party lines with Republicans against it.
However, some conservatives are realizing the death penalty doesn’t align with their core values. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, introduced House Bill 366 this session, which would substitute the death penalty for life without parole.
Hertz said he introduced the bill in part to be a good steward of tax dollars, and said an inmate on death row costs 10 times more than an inmate sentenced to life without parole. The bill does not yet have a fiscal note to determine the cost savings for abolishing the death penalty. Several committee members questioned whether it would be significant, as there are only two Montanans on death row.
While concerned about fiscal responsibility, Hertz said the bill would also fulfill his belief that life begins at conception and ends with natural death, and would provide inmates with a chance for redemption.
“I believe the death penalty system overlooks why we condemn murder in the first place,” Hertz said. “As a Christian, I believe in redemption.”
Three people — Rep. Adam Rosendale, R-Billings, Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, and Marc Hyden — represented the Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty organization. Hyden said conservatives are realizing the death penalty violates core principles of valuing life, promoting fiscal responsibility and a limited government.
Ray Krone, who spent a decade in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, told the committee his story. He was accused of a murder involving a bite wound and found guilty after the prosecutor hired an expensive expert who testified the bite on the victim matched Krone’s teeth. His parents mortgaged their house and cashed in retirement funds to afford an appeal. He was again found guilty, but was sentenced to life in prison after the judge doubted his guilt. In 2012, DNA testing finally proved his innocence. Krone is the 100th death row inmate to be exonerated in the United States.
“I was number 100,” he said. “Ten years, three months, eight days of the hell my family went through.”
Susan DeBree, a pastor at United Methodist in Livingston, is the mother of a murder victim. Gretchen, her daughter, was shot in the back of the head. Her death was found to be suspicious, but no charges were filed.
While the family has spent a lifetime with questions regarding the murder of Gretchen, DeBree said the death penalty wouldn’t have brought closure either.
“The death penalty reinforces the practice of killing another human being to end the conflict,” she said. “Redemption is a gift from God. Our faith teaches us it’s possible for all.”
Franklin Bookhart, a representative with the Montana Association of Christians, said the idea of killing a person for having killed a person is contradictory and calls the whole practice into question.
“I would add human justice of course is always approximate. Sometimes we execute people who are innocent,” he said.
Sarah Beck, a pastor from Billings, said the death penalty process forces the families of victims to relive the crime with each appeal and denies the ability to grieve or heal. Beck presented the committee with a letter signed by 50 family members of murder victims, who also oppose being complicit in taking a life.
Betsy Griffing, an attorney, said she supports the end of the death penalty for ethical reasons, the exorbitant cost and its arbitrary application.
She said death penalty cases are inherently complex and often take 20 years to get through motions, challenges of searches and confessions and constitutionally required appeals. The lengthy process is supposed to ensure that the innocent are not executed. In her years of experience, Griffing said she thought minorities and low-income people were disproportionately sentenced to death.
Griffing spoke of a fellow attorney haunted by the hypocrisy of a system that takes a life because it values life. After she supervised the legal team in Montana’s first execution in 50 years, she could no longer support the death penalty.
“I, too, vowed I would do everything I could to see that the death penalty was abolished,” she said.
SK Rossi, director of advocacy and public policy for ACLU Montana, said there isn’t any evidence suggesting the death penalty deters people from committing capital offenses.
No one testified in opposition to the bill.