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NJ Death Penalty Decision Revives MT Debate

December 18, 2007

Kalispell, MT – New Jersey abolished the death penalty this week. Two thousand miles away, the action is stirring up new discussion of the issue in Montana, where a similar measure failed in the state legislature last session.

On Monday, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a bill passed last week by the New Jersey legislature that makes his state the first in many years to do away with capital punishment.

The Rev. Su DeBree, with the Montana Abolition Coalition, says the reasons for the New Jersey decision are the same ones debated in her state: concerns about the cost of pursuing capital cases, fears about executing the wrong person, and what the families of victims want. Her own daughter was murdered seven years ago.

"I don't see it as being a deterrent. I see it as setting a model for the use of violence to resolve our problems when we can't think of another way to do it."

Sister Helen Prejean wrote the book Dead Man Walking, which was later made into a movie. The nationally-known anti-death-penalty activist hopes the New Jersey decision will help move Montana legislation. She has walked with six men to their executions, and says that while some were guilty, she began to suspect others were not. She says that doubt has been confirmed by high-tech testing, such as DNA analysis, which has cleared many who were convicted in error.

"To top it all, we realize we're making a lot of mistakes: 123 wrongfully-convicted people have come out of the faulty system."

The Montana Senate earlier this year approved a bill changing death sentences to life in prison without parole, but the measure stalled in the House and was not acted upon.

Deborah Smith/John Robinson, Public News Service - MT