Never say die 

Missoula's Wanzenried continues capital punishment fight

When Montana state Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, was a small boy living with his grandparents in Southern California, Caryl Chessman was convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping and rape and sentenced to death. The California court's decision ignited a national furor. Public figures including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer and Billy Graham spoke out against Chessman's death sentence. Wanzenried remembers his grandparents, who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland where there was (and is) no death penalty, discussed the case in the family's kitchen. "I remember I was six or seven and they asked me what I thought, and I said I thought [Chessman] deserved to die," Wanzenried says. "Then they asked me why." He says that was the moment the seed was planted.

Today, Wanzenried is one of Montana's most fervent opponents of the death penalty. To date, he has served eight terms in the Montana Legislature. He's been a vocal advocate in favor of medical marijuana and played an integral role in acquiring the seed money for the University of Montana's graduate program in speech-language pathology. But there is no issue with which Wanzenried identifies more closely than the repeal of the death penalty. He says the possibility of seeing capital punishment replaced with life without parole motivated him to return to the legislature for a ninth and final term. "I've carried several hundred bills over nine sessions, but this bill, this is a really heavy responsibility," he says. "This really defines who I am more than any other bill I've carried. There's nothing else that compares."

For the first half of Wanzenried's political career, beginning in 1991, he says few people asked him about his stance on capital punishment. "People wanted to know how I felt about abortion, taxes, education," he says. "But no one ever asked about the death penalty." In 2007, though, he had the opportunity to weigh in on the issue when an abolition bill was introduced to the Senate Judiciary Committee he sat on. He testified in favor of the bill and saw its passage through the Senate floor before it was killed in the House Judiciary Committee. Though the bill failed, Wanzenried felt invigorated by the cause. "When I saw this opportunity," he says, "I thought to myself, 'That's who I am.'"

In 2009, Wanzenried sponsored another abolition bill. The bill passed through the Senate, which, according to Wanzenried, marked the first time in United States history a Republican-controlled legislative body passed a bill to repeal capital punishment. It was struck down, however, in the House Judiciary Committee. In 2011, Wanzenried introduced the bill again. Again, it passed through a Republican-controlled Senate. Again, it died in the House Judiciary Committee.

click to enlarge Sen. Dave Wanzenried, left, spent the last four legislative sessions working to repeal Montana’s death penalty. “This really defines who I am more than any other bill I’ve carried,” he says. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Sen. Dave Wanzenried, left, spent the last four legislative sessions working to repeal Montana’s death penalty. “This really defines who I am more than any other bill I’ve carried,” he says.

Though Wanzenried's efforts have not yet sent a bill to the governor's desk, Montana Abolition Coalition Coordinator Jennifer Kirby says his work has been central to the bill's gain in momentum in recent sessions. "Sen. Wanzenried has truly been a terrific advocate for the abolition movement," she says. "We would not be here without his leadership and work through past sessions."

In 2013, the Montana Abolition Coalition recommended a new abolition bill be introduced in the Montana House of Representatives, precluding Wanzenried from sponsorship. "We started the bill in the House because there was a large contingent of Republican representatives who felt passionately about it," explains Kirby. "They've never been able to vote on the bill, because it's never made it to the House floor."

On Feb. 14, House Bill 370 was introduced by Rep. Doug Kary, R-Billings, before the House Judiciary Committee. He began his testimony, "You're going to hear today from people who disagree on social and fiscal issues. Most of them wouldn't be on the same side of any issues," he said, referring to fellow proponents of the bill. "There's a reason that all these people are here today ... They've come together. They've come to the conclusion that the death penalty has failed Montanans."

Along with copies of the bill, members of the committee were given a letter supporting abolition signed by 50 people whose family members were victims of murder. They were also given another letter signed by 11 Republican representatives urging the committee to pass the bill to the House floor, saying that "matters of life and death need to be discussed by the entire House."

Because of other legislative duties, Wanzenried was unable to attend the hearing, but he says he still feels deeply connected with HB 370. After this session, should the bill fail again, he plans on continuing his work in whatever capacity he can. "It's harder to get a bill through than it is to kill one," he says. "I'm not going to give up just because it's hard. If we don't succeed this time, I'm going to keep trying."

On the morning of Feb. 22, the House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on HB 370. That day, Wanzenried arrived at the Capitol early. In the rotunda, on the way to his office, he came across a group of Abolition Coalition members posing for a group photograph to commemorate the impending vote. They insisted he join them for a picture.

Less than an hour later, sitting in his office, Wanzenried received a text message. On the other side of the Capitol, the House Judiciary Committee had voted 11-9 against HB 370.

The next day, he planned to meet with the Abolition Coalition and Republican sponsors on what to do next.

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