HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A proposal to repeal Montana's death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole has passed the Senate but now faces a key hurdle in the House — making it through the same committee where the bill has died in every legislative session since 2005.
The House Judiciary Committee heard Democratic Sen. David Wanzenried's bill Tuesday after the measure passed the Senate last month. A similar measure also carried by Wanzenried in the 2009 session died in the committee after being approved by the Senate.
The judiciary committee has proven a stumbling block for a repeal of the death penalty since the 2005 session. The last time a measure to abolish the death penalty cleared the committee was in 2003, but it was defeated on the House floor.
Little suggests the House committee will break from precedent this year, given the Republican domination of the committee and the House. Democrats usually support repeal of the death penalty more often than Republicans.
Rep. Cleve Loney, who is on the Judiciary Committee, said it was doubtful Senate Bill 185 by would clear the committee this year.
"In my own mind I can't imagine compassion for someone without compassion," said the Great Falls Republican.
Supporters of abolishing the death penalty say the punishment draws out the suffering of victim's families through lengthy trials and innocent people could accidently be put to death.
People opposing the measure say the death penalty is an important tool for bargaining with criminals to get convictions, and it stops murderers from killing again in prison.
Speaking at the hearing Tuesday was Randy Steidl, who spent 12 years on death row after being wrongly convicted in the 1986 murder of two newlyweds.
"You can release an innocent man from prison. I'm living proof of that. But you can't release him from the grave," Steidl said.
Illinois' governor signed a repeal of the death penalty this month, making it the 16th state in the nation to ban the penalty.
On Monday, the Montana Abolition Coalition held a rally at the Capitol with David Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski — also known as the Unabomber — and families of murder victims in support of Wanzenried's measure.
Supporters testifying for repeal included religious leaders who said there was a moral obligation not to take revenge by killing another person.
Other religious leaders disagreed, saying the bible and church authorities allowed for capital punishment in some cases.
People opposing the measure also argued some people are just too dangerous to keep alive.
Jeff Laszloffy, a former legislator and conservative activist, said some murderers will kill again in prison if given the chance.
"We need to come to terms with the fact that there a people among us who kill, and if given the chance they will kill repeatedly," Laszloffy said.