Death penalty 

Old debate, new angle

Rep. Christy Clark, a Republican from Choteau, has noted a shift in the chatter among conservatives about Montana's death penalty. Moral implications have long dominated the debate about abolishing the law. Now, it seems, state legislators are moving to the middle ground.

"The conservatives that I work with, our mission has changed in that we view this as a fiscal issue, not a moral issue," Clark says. With that consideration, she adds, abolition of the death penalty "makes sense."

The shift has come largely as a result of the Montana Abolition Coalition's effort to more aggressively put fiscal data on capital punishment in front of conservative politicians. The coalition, a 16-year-old collection of faith-based and human rights organizations, cites studies indicating that the death penalty can cost as much as 10 times more than a life sentence without possibility of parole. And lawmakers have more to consider; two weeks ago, Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled the state's lethal injection procedure is unconstitutional.

"It's just a big, strong spotlight on how ineffective and inefficient it is," says Steve Dogiakos, a member of both the Abolition Coalition and Montana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. "The recent ruling...really shows that it's an imperfect situation, it's a broken institution of government."

Clark is now one of several legislators primed to take the issue forward in the 2013 session. The fiscal argument is attracting more conservatives, Dogiakos says, bolstering the religious-based pro-life support for abolition already espoused by lawmakers like Republican Sen. Roy Brown of Billings. That, combined with long-standing Democratic opposition to capital punishment, "will make abolition happen."

Clark is eager to see the law change, and thinks the bipartisan ground reached on the issue should alleviate the exasperation felt by many lawmakers during the much-panned 2011 session. But Clark has her reservations as well. When compared to jobs and the economy, the death penalty debate isn't a high priority among the Republican legislators she's talked to. Clark's not even sure this is the right year to take on such an emotionally charged issue.

"Sherry Arnold was murdered in Sydney, and just a month ago in my own district, we had a homicide," Clark says. "When egregious crimes are committed, people have a tendency to want to hold on to the death penalty."

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