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Families of murder victims divided on bill to abolish death penalty

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HELENA – Some families of murder victims lined up on the opposite sides of a bill Thursday to abolish the death penalty in Montana and replace it with life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

Some religious leaders also were divided on House Bill 370, by Rep. Doug Kary, R-Billings, at a long, emotional hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. The panel took no immediate action on the bill.

Kary told the committee that this isn’t a debate over whether the death penalty is philosophically or morally an acceptable punishment.

“This is about whether the death penalty is working here in Montana, whether it’s an effective policy,” he said. “I would argue it is not. I would argue it’s broken. If we haven’t executed an innocent person in Montana, it’s out of sheer luck.”

Litigation over appeals by those sentenced to death here is “wasting millions of dollars on less than a handful of cases, while police, courts and prisons beg for more resources, resources that could actually keep our communities safe,” he said.

Marietta Jaeger Lane of Three Forks supported the bill. She told how she and her family were on a camping vacation to Montana in 1973 when her 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was taken from the tent, held captive, raped repeatedly for almost two months and then strangled to death and her body destroyed.

“There’s no crime more heinous and horrifying than the one that claimed the life of my innocent little girl,” Lane said. “For decades, I have fought to honor my little girl in the best way I know how by saying that life is sacred and by speaking out against the deliberate unnecessary taking of a human life through the death penalty.”

Yet her voice and the voices of fellow Montanans who have lost family members to murder have been ignored for years, Lane said.

“We believe that our loved ones deserve a more beautiful, honorable and noble memorial than a state-sanctioned, premeditated killing of another chained, restrained person, however deserving of death we deem that person to be,” Lane said. “All it does is leave another victim and another grieving family.”

However, Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, opposed the bill, telling how his son Steve, 17, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2000.

“We found out our son had been tortured beyond belief, executed, his body burned three times with gasoline and diesel fuel trying to destroy it,” Berry said.

The legislator said his family was looking at a murder trial that would have lasted several weeks.

“We would have heard over and over again in great detail about the torture tactics used on my son,” Berry said. “We would have seen color pictures of my son’s burned body – pictures I’ve never seen, pictures I never want to see,” Berry said. “I want to remember my son as my son.”

He said the attorneys for the killers proposed a plea agreement for them to plead guilty in exchange for the death penalty being spared.

“Do you know how important it was to our family to not have to go through the court proceedings?” Berry asked. “Why would you take the power away from the state of Montana to work these cases?”

Supporters of the bill cited the possibility of an innocent person being put to death and the cost of appeals in death penalty cases.

The Rev. Michael W. Warfel, Catholic bishop of Great Falls-Billings, quoted Pope John Paul II saying the “dignity of life may never be taken away.”

The Rev. Sue DeBree, a Methodist minister, spoke for the bill on behalf of the Montana Association of Churches, which represents churches that count 190,000 Montanans as members.

A letter was read from John Connor, who was the state’s chief prosecutor for 21 years, in support of the bill. He talked about what he came to believe was the hypocrisy of prosecuting someone in a homicide case and then asking the court to take that person’s life.

“We respect human life so much that because you took one, we are going to use all our legal resources for the next 20 years to take your life,” he said.

But longtime Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said Montana prosecutors have not had any death penalty cases in which people have been wrongly convicted. Any potential death penalty case is also reviewed by a panel of assistant attorneys general before proceeding.

“We proceed as conscientiously, as dispassionately and as objectively as we can in making those decisions,” he said.

Opposing the bill was the Rev. Jordan Hall, a Baptist pastor from Sidney.

“The death penalty is prescribed in Scripture,” he said. “It is not a responsibility of citizenry. It is the responsibility of the state.”

Two Richland County commissioners from the Sidney area also opposed the bill, citing the possibility that the death penalty may be invoked for the two men charged in the 2012 kidnapping and murder of Sherry Arnold, a Sidney teacher.

“I think this would be quite a blow to the community if this were reversed,” said Loren Young, commission chair.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or by email at

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