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Legislature hears bill to eliminate Montana's death penalty - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

Legislature hears bill to eliminate Montana's death penalty

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HELENA -- A bill to eliminate Montana's death penalty is before the Legislature this week and today, lawmakers heard testimony about murder, punishment, forgiveness and the lives that are forever changed.

Randy Steidl spent 12 years on death row before being exonerated, convicted for a double murder he didn't commit. "And I'm just one of 150 exonerated former death row inmates struggling to regain what is left of our lives,” he said.

That's the sort of injustice proponents of House Bill 370 want to prevent by repealing Montana's death penalty. Sponsor David “Doc” Moore (R-Missoula) recounted four different homicides that have affected his life.

Life without parole makes fiscal sense, he said, costing less than the lengthy appeals involved with the death penalty.

“And to me, personally, I couldn't imagine a worse fate than being locked up on prison for the rest of my life,” he said.

Death penalty opponents lined up in the House Judiciary Committee.

Susan Debree's daughter was born 49 years ago on Valentine's Day. Her 1990 death by a gunshot in Great Falls never led to an arrest or conviction.

"To survive and to continue living myself, I had to choose to learn to walk in the road of forgiveness,” she said.

Matt Randles, a pastor Evangelical Covenant Church, likened the death penalty to a Ferrari without an engine, making a strong statement about being tough on crime. "It's very, very, very expensive," he said. "And it doesn't get us anywhere."

"State-supported vengeance flies in the face of everything Jesus lived and died for,” said Jessica Crist a Lutheran Bishop.  “Vengeance is mine,' said the Lord. 'Not ours.'"

Betsy Griffing, a former prosecutor in the Montana Department of Justice handling death penalty cases, also opposed the bill, noting the financial costs to the state and the emotional toll on the lawyers and others working in such cases. One capital case, she said, required the lengthy full-time attention of five department attorneys.

Some lawmakers opposing the repeal have had personal experiences with murder.

The son of MT Representative Tom Berry was tortured and murdered by drug dealers 15 years ago.

"The killer brandished a 9mm pistol and shot my son in the face as he was begging for his life,” said Berry, his voice breaking with emotion.

The killer's guilty plea spared Berry's family from involvement in a lengthy trial; but it only came because the threat of the death penalty. Berry and other opponents of the bill noted that the death penalty can serve as a bargaining chip in such situations.

That killer's sentence makes him eligible for parole after serving 30 years.

“The proponents to repeal the death penalty talk about closure. — ‘Oh. the appeals go on and on and on,'” he said. “Well, about 15 years from now, I got to go up there and  I'm gonna oppose the killer of my son getting out of jail."

When MT Representative Roy Hollandsworth (R-Brady) was six month old, a man killed his father and terrorized the rest of the family. That assailant even tried to strangle Hollandsworth until him mother tossed him car keys so he would leave.

That killer was eventually paroled.

"My mother, and my oldest brother lived in terror that he was going to come back and finish the job,” he said.

Montana has executed three people since 1976, with two more now on death row.

Similar versions of HB 370 have come up in several previous Legislative sessions.
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