The judiciary committee in the lower house of Montana's two-tier legislature stalled earlier bills to abolish the death penalty in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013. They had been introduced and then passed by the state senate.
This year the bill, which was introduced by Republican Rep. David (Doc) Moore, started out on the house side and made it past the judiciary committee by an 11-10 vote.
"I am shocked it got out of committee. I was as surprised as anybody," Moore said in a telephone interview. "I've really got a tiger by the tail now."
Moore says the bill, which would abolish executions and replace them with a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole, must now be voted on by the state house of representatives no later than Feb. 27.
"I honestly don't know what will happen," Moore said. "I think there's enough votes on the house floor for it to pass."
If it passes, it would go through a similar process in Montana's senate.
Moore is worried there may be another attempt by proponents of the death penalty to refer it to another committee in order to kill it.
"The people who are against it are really against it."
If passed as written the legislation would be retroactive to include Smith, 57, and another death-row inmate, William Jay Gollehon.
Smith, who is originally from Red Deer, Alta., was convicted in Montana in 1983 for shooting to death two cousins while he was high on drugs and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont.
He refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row and spend the rest of his life in prison. Three weeks later, he pleaded guilty. He asked for and was given a death sentence.
Smith had a change of heart and has been on a legal roller-coaster for decades. An execution date has been set five times and each time the order was overturned.
Moore said bringing forward the legislation isn't about seeking leniency for those on death row, but about eliminating the costs of the protracted legal wrangling involved in a death penalty case.
Ron Waterman, a senior lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Association, testified before the judiciary committee that the death penalty system is flawed and there is the risk of executing an innocent person.
He said the costs also mitigate the benefits the death penalty gives a prosecutor trying to negotiate a plea bargaining.
"Once triggered, the defendant is entitled to massive exposure to defend against such charges. No prosecutor will spend over $400,000 just to try having a tool to use in a plea bargaining," Waterman said.
"The death sentence does not deter crime or other capital crimes."
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