The New Mexico Legislature and Gov. Bill Richardson took a bold step a few weeks ago when they decided to abolish the state’s death penalty, becoming the 15th state to formally ban capital punishment. At the time, supporters hoped New Mexico’s new law would set a trend among states reevaluating the death penalty, including Montana.

Those hopes were dashed Monday when the House Judiciary Committee voted against Missoula Sen. Dave Wanzenried’s SB 236, effectively ending the bill’s chances of reaching a full vote in the House.

There are many reasons to lament the committee’s decision, but the main one centers on the missed opportunity of hearing the full House debate the topic. Wanzenried’s bill, which called for replacing the death penalty with a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, provided some of the most spirited and enlightening testimony of this legislative session. And almost none of the discussion bogged down in typical partisan bickering.

Before the bill passed out of the Republican-controlled Senate, Roy Brown, R-Billings, said he couldn’t justify capital punishment when he’s so ardently anti-abortion. Another Republican, Gary Perry of Manhattan, argued prisoners should die at the hands of God, not the hands of the state.

The House Judiciary Committee struck a similarly personal tone before squashing the bill. Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, recounted how he was almost killed when he was six months old by a crazed handyman. The man killed Hollandsworth’s father, shot his brother and tried to choke Hollandsworth until his mother intervened. The attacker received life in prison, but Hollandsworth’s mother spent the rest of her life fearing authorities would one day free the man and he would return to finish what he started. If a compelling argument in favor of the death penalty exists, Hollandsworth certainly has it.

But just as compelling were how supporters of SB 236 gained traction with previous detractors this session. For one, more legislators seemed to notice that it costs three times more money for the state to kill somebody as it does to incarcerate that person for life. The Death Penalty Information Center estimates the cost per execution is at least $3 million once the state tallies all the court costs and legal appeals.

Bottom line: Whether the debate involved moral values or practical reasoning, SB 236 deserved a broader discussion. Who knows? Perhaps more long-time proponents of the death penalty would change their minds.

Take Richardson, who used to favor capital punishment until he made “the toughest decision” of his political career and signed New Mexico’s ban. It would have been interesting so see more Montana legislators face that same tough decision.
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