Matthew Brower, Director of the Montana Catholic Conference, testified and submitted a joint statement by Montana’s Catholic Bishops to the House Judiciary Committee Monday Feb. 6. Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Diocese of Helena and Bishop Michael W. Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings took the opportunity to reiterate their opposition to the death penalty and its harmful impact on all parties and on a society that values life.
The statement comes with the introduction of HB 366, a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana. The Bishops’ statement calls out the inherent problems with current death penalty practices including inordinately high prosecution costs, discrimination, poor representation and the risk to the innocent lives citing that over 150 death row inmates have been wrongly convicted.
Bishops Thomas and Warfel explain that the death penalty perpetuates victimization. They stress that capital punishment re-victimizes the families of murder victims during a protracted and public trial, sentencing and appeals process. Following an execution, family members of offenders are made the victims of homicide. The statement includes a third tier of victims who “perform, condone and fund the act of execution, from the death house attendants to the governor and lawmakers to the average citizen.”
According to Catholic social teaching, without an imminent threat to human life and the public, to kill a person is to reject our deepest humanity. Borrowing from Saint Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life, the statement reads, “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
The Bishops also state, “For Catholics working to cultivate a profound respect for life at all its stages, the true gauge of our success is how we treat the least among us.”
Montana lawmakers have seen bills calling for an end to the death penalty since 1999. The Montana Catholic Conference testified in favor of abolition of the death penalty at the last six sessions, with Bishop Thomas personally testifying in support of bill SB 306 in 2007 and Bishop Warfel doing so in 2013 with HB 370. Abolition bills passed the senate in 2009 and 2011 but were defeated by the House Judiciary committee. HB 370 in 2015 made it through the House Judiciary Committee only to fall one vote short on the House floor with a 50-50 vote.
On Feb. 6, the House Judiciary Committee heard from 16 proponents of House Bill 366 that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Committee members questioned proponents for an hour following initial testimony. No testimony was offered in opposition to the bill.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, opened testimony stating that the death penalty costs taxpayers ten times more than lifelong incarceration. Citing the numerous death row exonerations since 1976, Hertz said that administrating the death penalty is ineffective and risks innocent life. Hertz also called the death penalty unjust referring to his faith-based view that all life is to be respected from conception until natural death and that society is, “Perpetrating the very crime we are collectively attempting to condemn in the first place.”
Often at odds on other policy issues, proponents of HB 366 span the political spectrum including Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCADP), the ACLU of Montana, the Montana Abolition Coalition, the Montana Association of Christians, the Montana Human Rights Network and the Domestic Violence Coalition. Proponents found common ground as they decried the high cost of death penalty cases, improper application of current law and the many moral and ethical shortcomings of the current law. Two proponents lost family members to murder and said that taking another life would not assuage their loss and, for one, life in prison for the guilty would at least offer the possibility of a meaningful life and an opportunity for redemption.
Exonerated Arizona Death Row inmate Ray Krone said, “I’ve been there.” Krone recounted his ten-year odyssey of wrongful incarceration including three years on Arizona’s Death Row. Exonerated through DNA testing, Krone cofounded Witness To Innocence with Sr. Helen Prejean C.S.J. the anti-death penalty activist and Nobel Prize nominee. Krone now works alongside other death row exonerees to help abolish the death penalty through testifying in legislatures and raising public awareness.
Betsy Griffing, a former attorney with the Montana State Attorney General’s Office, testified that death penalty prosecution costs reach well into the hundreds of thousands per case consuming up to four times the personnel as other cases. Griffing stated that their time would be, “Better dedicated to other cases.” Griffing also stated that the death penalty is, “Disproportionally applied to minorities and the poor.”
House Judicial Committee Member, Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, whose sister-in-law was murdered in 1982, raised concerns that the bill might allow the guilty to leave prison before they were, “In a body bag.” The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Hertz, said he was open to ratifying language but that no possibility of parole is the intent of the bill. Rep. Sheldon-Galloway also asked if the cost of elder care and serious illness was included in data that showed life in prison is less costly than the death penalty. Mark Hyden of CCADP stated that national research indicated those costs had been considered. At the time of the hearing a fiscal note had not yet been completed and the House Judiciary Committee did not take any action. Committee action is expected within the next two weeks.
2017’s HB 366 will need to survive a House Judiciary Committee vote to be up for full debate and voting on the House Floor. If it passes the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee will determine whether to send it for a full debate and vote at the Senate. Once approved by the legislature, HB 366 then goes to Governor Bullock to be signed into law, vetoed or allowed to become law with no action.
Legislators can “blast” a bill out of a House committee to the floor if a super majority votes in favor of bypassing the committee process.
The Montana Catholic Conference (MCC) was incorporated in 1969 to represent, in the public policy arena, the Roman Catholic Bishops in each of Montana’s two dioceses. MCC Director, Matthew Brower sees this as an opportunity for Catholics to support the sanctity of life at all stages. He stated, “I would encourage people to talk to their legislators. Building relationships and voicing our support for legislators helps to encourage and give courage. This is not just about getting a bill passed, but it’s about doing the right thing.”