EDITORIALS: Montana Paper Calls for Repeal

A recent editorial in the Great Falls Tribune in Montana outlined some of the key problems with the death penalty as the state legislature considers its repeal. The editors expressed concerns about the risks of mistake with executions: “There is no way to take back an execution. That reason alone provides good cause to eliminate the death penalty in Montana.” The paper also noted that victims' families wait for decades for executions to be carried out, with the defendants receiving most of the attention: "[D]uring the long periods before their executions, these men received regular publicity and notoriety for their crimes. If they had been simply locked up for life without possibility of parole, people could have forgotten about them." The editorial concluded, “Our bottom line is that it’s risky to execute people when they might not be guilty. In addition, the cost and trauma of court cases that drag on for years is not worth the satisfaction some people receive from the finality of executions. We simply cannot afford to spend millions of dollars each on future death penalty cases.”  Read the editorial below.

Death penalty risky, too expensive
Tribune editorial board

A coalition of Democrats and Republicans raised the issue of the death penalty again in the Montana Legislature.

These activists contend there are a variety of reasons to oppose the death penalty, including the high cost of litigating death penalty cases and the extended period, sometimes decades, it takes for those cases to be settled.

Morality is another reason. Some consider the death penalty immoral or hypocritical because it calls for the state to kill someone, usually after the person who was convicted committed murder himself.

Others, who consider themselves pro-life when it comes to abortion, have acknowledged a contradiction when they also supported a death penalty for killers.

Back in September, we stated our opposition to the death penalty and we will restate it here as the Legislature considers whether to tackle this issue again.

A bill was introduced Monday, and its primary sponsor was Rep. Doug Kary, R-Billings. Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, requested that the bill be drafted.

Several aspects of the death penalty — which in Montana takes place by lethal injection, when the individual case or the method of execution is not tied up in the courts — concern us.

One is the large number of prisoners executed in the United States over the years who have turned out to be innocent. There is no way to take back an execution. That reason alone provides good cause to eliminate the death penalty in Montana.

Money is another reason. The Urban Institute estimated the additional cost of one death penalty trial in Maryland was $1.9 million, when compared with a similar case in which the death penalty was not sought.

The average cost to incarcerate an inmate in Montana is $35,659 per year, according to Bob Anez, communications director for the Montana Department of Corrections.

In addition, families of crime victims sometimes must wait decades for a punishment to be carried out.

It’s not like this issue comes up every two weeks. Convicted murderer Duncan MacKenzie was executed in Montana in 1995, the first execution in the state in 50 years. Then killer Terry Langford was put to death by the state in 1997, and David Dawson in 2006. That’s it. Of those three, MacKenzie was the only one to proclaim his innocence to the end, Anez recalled.

In any case, during the long periods before their executions, these men received regular publicity and notoriety for their crimes. If they had been simply locked up for life without possibility of parole, people could have forgotten about them.

No doubt Americans 50 years from now or a century away will look back on such executions as uncivilized, just as we look back with horror on barbaric practices such as crucifixion, drawing and quartering or hanging, the latter of which took place in this country during the last century.

As for the idea of reserving the death penalty for serial killers, Montana has not exactly been a hotbed for them. And only two people are sitting on death row at the Montana State Prison at the moment, Ronald Smith and William J. Gollehon.

No doubt all these issues will be discussed at length in the Legislature this session.

Our bottom line is that it’s risky to execute people when they might not be guilty. In addition, the cost and trauma of court cases that drag on for years is not worth the satisfaction some people receive from the finality of executions.

We simply cannot afford to spend millions of dollars each on future death penalty cases.

("Death penalty risky, too expensive," Great Falls Tribune, editorial, February 5, 2013).  See Innocence and Costs.  Read more Editorials on the death penalty.