HELENA — Montana legislators will again consider a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty, continuing a string of efforts by death penalty opponents that goes back decades.
House Bill 350, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, has its initial House Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for Feb. 18.
Hopkins said his bill is designed to acknowledge that the state is no longer likely to execute the criminal defendants it sentences to death, even as it spends hefty sums on appeals and other legal wrangling around such cases.
“You can’t really make the case that you have a death penalty if the people on death row have been there for 30 years,” Hopkins said.
“Take the statute and make it meet the reality that we find ourselves in, and save the people of Montana some money in the process,” he added.
While legislators have considered bills to abolish the state death penalty in every legislative session since at least 1990, no such measure has ever made it to the governor’s desk.
A 2007 bill carried by now-deceased Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, passed the state Senate before being tabled by the House Judiciary Committee. An effort to “blast” the bill out of committee and bring it to a vote on the House floor failed 51-49.
A 2015 measure sponsored by then-Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, narrowly passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and then failed on the House floor by a single vote, splitting the chamber 50-50.
Bills can be introduced in either the House or Senate, but must be endorsed by both chambers before they are sent to the governor for his signature. Both the House and Senate have committees that function to screen bills in advance of debate by the entire bodies.
Montana currently has two inmates on death row, William Jay Gollehon and Ronald Allen Smith, both of whom have been incarcerated since the 1980s.
Gollehon was sentenced to death in 1991 for killing a fellow inmate while serving a sentence for another homicide. Smith was sentenced to death in 1983 for killing two men who had picked him up while he was hitchhiking.
Montana has executed three inmates by lethal injection since 1976, most recently David Dawson in 2006, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A 2015 court ruling left the state without a drug it can use to carry out executions, the center says.
An 2016 analysis by researchers at Seattle University estimates that death penalty cases in Washington State cost $1 million more on average than prosecutions seeking a sentence of life without parole.
Given that, Hopkins said, it’s time to take the state’s death penalty statute off the books.
“It’s always tough to be able to fathom the future,” he said of the bill’s chances. “But I think our odds are pretty good.”
Update: The 2019 bill was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee Feb. 20, where a vote to move it forward failed 8-11. We’ve also updated the graphic.