Lawmakers asked to revise, abolish death penalty

HELENA (AP) — A Montana lawmaker wants to require prosecutors to provide indisputable biological proof that a person committed a capital crime before that person can be sentenced to death.

The House Judiciary Committee is set to hear a bill Wednesday by Rep. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, that would require there be DNA or other biological proof that a judge finds conclusively establishes the defendant’s guilt before they can be sentenced to death.

The measure would save the state money because fewer people would be sentenced to death, creating fewer appeals and reducing court costs, Hamlett said.

“Whether you agree with the death penalty or not, I think we can all agree we don’t want innocent people being executed, period,” Hamlett said Tuesday.

Montana is one of 30 states with the death penalty, but it can’t execute anybody because of a judge’s ruling that the Department of Corrections doesn’t have access to the specific lethal injection drugs that are allowed under state law. The most recent execution in Montana was in 2006.

Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula is sponsoring a separate bill seeking to abolish the death penalty entirely — including the sentences of the two men on death row. Hopkins’ bill also has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, although a hearing date has not been set.

State lawmakers have rejected efforts to repeal the death penalty for at least the past two decades. Hopkins said the time is now.

“If you’re a person that just generally believes the death penalty is wrong, then the death penalty is wrong and it should be abolished,” Hopkins said. “If you’re a person that believes in fiscal responsibility or the concept that policy should actually do what the policy says, then the death penalty should be abolished because we have a death penalty under which nobody dies.”

William J. Gollehon faces the death penalty for killing a fellow inmate during a 1990 riot at the state prison. He was already been serving a life sentence for killing a woman in Billings in 1985.

Ronald Allen Smith was sentenced to death in March 1983 for killing two hitchhikers in August 1982.

The state has had to pay for special attorneys to defend Gollehon and Smith and file appeals on their behalf as well as defended lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the penalty and the protocol used to carry it out, Hopkins argued.

Montana’s neighbor to the south, Wyoming, also is considering abolishing the death penalty. A repeal bill passed the state House last week and is now pending in the Senate.

Last year, Washington state’s supreme court ruled the death penalty there is unconstitutional, and Delaware’s high court did the same in 2016. Nebraska lawmakers repealed the death penalty in 2015, but it was reinstated by voters the following year.

New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland have all repealed the death penalty in their states over the last decade, while governors in Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania have declared moratoriums in their states.