Sally, Chuck and Mike talk assisted suicide, death penalty, guns and schools

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLTonight on “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about the fate of bills on assisted suicide, charter schools, gun rights, and the death penalty…

Should Montana drop the death penalty?

Death Penalty abolition supporter Ronald Keine was sent to death row for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated nine days before his execution.

Death Penalty abolition supporter Ronald Keine was sent to death row for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated nine days before his execution.

The House Judiciary Committee heard an hour of testimony each for supporters and opponents of a measure seeking to abolish Montana’s death penalty, HB 370. We told you about this bill sponsored by Republicans and Democrats last week.

Sponsor Representative Doug Kary (R-Billings) says the death penalty is “wasting millions of dollars on less than a handful of cases while our police, courts and prisons are asking for more resources.” He calls it a failed policy and says the death penalty should be replaced with life in prison without parole. Kary says the fact that Montana has not executed an innocent person is out of sheer luck “and we cannot trust luck with matters of life and death.”

Detroit Resident Ronald Keine spoke in favor of the bill. He was falsely accused of a murder committed and covered up by a police officer and says that officer confessed to the murder to a church preacher—nine days before Keine was scheduled to go to the gas chamber. he says more than 140 other Americans have been exonerated from death row.

“I don’t trust the government with my health care, my tax dollars,(or) my guns, I sure as hell don’t trust them with my life,” he said.

Opponents of the abolition bill say the death penalty is a useful tool for prosecutors and a powerful deterrent to the most heinous crimes.

“If you say we’ll take the death penalty off if you plead guilty, it ends that trial, it’s actually saved money in those cases,” said Representative Roy Hollandsworth (R-Brady). He was just a child when a man attacked his family.”He killed my Dad, shot a hand off of my brother, shot him in the leg, tried to shoot everybody, tried to strangle me,” Hollandsworth said. “He got life in prison.”

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert says the system for applying the death penalty is very strict, limited and thorough: “With the help of the Attorney General we proceed as conscientiously, as dispassionately and as objectively as we can in these cases.”

Committee members will be voting on whether or not to send the abolition bill to the House floor next Friday.

Montana currently has two people on death row.

Bi-Partisan group looks to end Montana death penalty

Sen. Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula) at podium with Rep. Doug Kary (R-Billings), Sen. Matthew Rosendale (R-Glendive), and Rep. Margie MacDonald (D-Billings) behind

Sen. Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula) at podium with Rep. Doug Kary (R-Billings), Sen. Matthew Rosendale (R-Glendive), and Rep. Margie MacDonald (D-Billings) behind

A bi-partisan group of legislators believes they have “good prospects” of abolishing Montana’s death penalty. The group of two Democrats and two Republicans want to replace the death penalty with life in prison

Efforts to repeal the death penalty have cleared the State Senate the last two legislative sessions, but died in the House.

At a Monday press conference put on by the Montana Abolition Coalition, Representative Margie MacDonald (D-Billings) said 2013 may be different.

“This will allow us to focus our resources, our energy and quit spending millions of dollars trying to pursue capital punishment and instead focus those resources on our correctional system, on addressing the needs of our victims,” she said defending abolition.

Senator Matthew Rosendale (R-Glendive) said he is co-sponsoring the bill as a man of faith. He says the bill to abolish the death penalty is part of an effort to affirm the sanctity of life, and “It’s that respect for all life that brings us here together with folks from around the entire state to work to abolish the death penalty here in Montana.”

Supporters of the bill say the death penalty makes it possible to execute an innocent person.

Those in favor to the death penalty say it is an important deterrent and fair justice.

Montana currently has two inmates on death row.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sally Mauk talks with two conservative Republicans who oppose the death penalty….


A RECENT POLL SHOWS THE MAJORITY OF MONTANANS CONTINUE TO FAVOR THE DEATH PENALTY BUT THAT HASN’T STOPPED STATE LEGISLATORS – MOSTLY DEMOCRATS – FROM TRYING TO PASS A BILL TO ABOLISH IT. THE BILL PASSED THE REPUBLICAN-CONTROLLED SENATE IN THE LAST SESSION, THEN DIED IN COMMITTEE IN THE REPUBLICAN-CONTROLLED HOUSE. A NEW GROUP CALLED “MONTANA CONSERVATIVES CONCERNED ABOUT THE DEATH PENALTY” MAY GIVE THE ABOLISH EFFORT MORE LIFE IN THE UPCOMING 2013 LEGISLATIVE SESSION. FORMER REPUBLICAN STATE SENATOR ROY BROWN OF BILLINGS IS ON THE GROUP’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE. HE HAS LONG BEEN AN OPPONENT OF THE DEATH PENALTY. CURRENT REPUBLICAN STATE REPRESENTATIVE CHRISTY CLARK OF CHOTEAU SAYS SHE WILL WORK ON ABOLISHING THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE UPCOMING SESSION. IN THIS FEATURE INTERVIEW, NEWS DIRECTOR SALLY MAUK TALKS WITH BOTH OF THESE CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICANS ABOUT THEIR OPPOSITION TO THE DEATH PENALTY. BROWN SAYS HE OPPOSES IT PRECISELY BECAUSE HE IS A CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN…

Schweitzer meets with family of Ronald Allen Smith to discuss clemency request

Ronald Allen Smith

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer has met with the family of the only Canadian on death row in the United States to discuss his feelings on whether or not he should let that sentence be carried out.

Alberta Native Ronald Allen Smith murdered two Native American men on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation in the early 1980s.

Smith says he is a changed man after his nearly 30 years in prison, and has asked that Schweitzer commute his sentence to life with no possibility of parole.

The state board of Pardons and Parole has recommended to the Governor that he allow the execution be carried out.

The Governor made it clear he’s conflicted.

Officially, Governor Schweitzer supports the death penalty. Yet, you would never have known that listening to his nearly one hour discussion with the family of convicted killer, Ronald Allen Smith. Schweitzer gave almost nothing but reasons why he should grant clemency, or mercy, to Smith. Smith originally asked for the death penalty after pleading guilty to the drug-fueled murders of Thomas Running Rabbit Jr. and Harvey Mad Man—both in their early 20s.

He soon changed his mind, though and has been fighting the sentence ever since. But another man charged in the same crime asked for a different sentence, and has since received parole and is living in Canada a free man.

Schweitzer says Smith is not asking for parole, he knows no matter what he will die in prison.

“He will die in a small room in a foreign country,” Schweitzer said. “He knows that. He’s asking that he simply be allowed to die more slowly.”

Schweitzer calls Smith’s original request for the death penalty akin to state-assisted suicide. The governor says he had another man with the same request during his tenure.

Murderer David Thompson Dawson was executed in 2006.

“…And damn him to hell for forcing the state of Montana and me to help him in his suicide,” Schweitzer said.

The family sat quiet much of the meeting, wiping away tears. Sister Rita Duncan says she shunned Smith for many years only to later reconnect and find the man had genuinely changed behind bars.

“You couldn’t disguise the change, you can’t fake the change, you can’t,” she said.

The families of the victims also met with Schweitzer years ago, and told him they would not feel closure without Smith being put to death. Schweitzer back then said he had a moral obligation to think first about the families of the Montana victims.

On Friday, to Smith’s family, Schweitzer said many people believe the corrections system should just be about retribution—without considering the ability of an inmate to reform.

“If you stole something, we’re going to steal a portion of your life and put you in a cage. If you stole somebody’s life, we’re going to steal your life. (That’s) Retribution. I don’t know if that’s what our corrections system would like to be known as.”

Schweitzer closed the discussion by saying he is still weighing the difficult sides of this decision.

“I can’t tell you what actions I might take,” he said. “I think you had an opportunity to look into my heart. And I’ve had an opportunity to look into your hearts as well.”

With that the family said they were off to see Smith at the Montana State Prison.

There is no deadline for Schweitzer to make his decision.