An earlier-than-expected vote of the Montana House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 10 has tabled a bill to end the death penalty.
The committee vote on House Bill No. 366 ("Abolish death penalty and replace with life without parole") was not expected until the week of Feb. 13, according to Matthew Brower, director of the Montana Catholic Conference. The vote was 9 in favor, 10 against.
However, Brower said the coalition supporting HB 366 "is not giving up."
"We are not waving the white flag," he continued. "We are working on a path forward, looking at options, having conversations to see what is possible going forward. We'll see how this all plays out."
In Montana there is a procedure — called a "blast motion" — that can bring a bill to the House floor without passage out of committee. Generally that requires more than a simple majority vote.
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On Feb. 6 Brower and 15 others testified in support of HB 366 before the Judiciary Committee.
Brower also submitted a joint letter from Montana's two Catholic bishops -- George Thomas of Helena and Michael Warfel of Great Falls-Billings — which reiterated "their opposition to the death penalty and its harmful impact on all parties and on a society that values life," according to the Helena diocese website.
"In the heart of the Church, there can never be cast-off lives or disposable souls. No one is ever beyond the reach of redemption. This is why the death penalty will always be antithetical to a consistent ethic of life," Thomas emailed NCR on Feb. 10.
Thomas and Warfel have both testified in person in the past in support of death penalty elimination.
There was no testimony against HB 366 at the Feb. 6 committee session. However, said Brower, "While it was wonderful that we did not have opposition at the hearing, that does not necessarily translate into support on a committee. Just because opposition is not present does not mean we do not have opposition."
Montana legislators have considered bills to ban the death penalty since 1999, Brower noted.
During the last session in 2015, HB 370 to end capital punishment cleared the House Judiciary Committee, but fell short of passing the House by one vote with a floor vote of 50-50.
Similar bills were passed by the state's Senate in 2009 and 2011, but were killed by the House Judiciary Committee, Brower said.
"We have been making steady progress on this," he added. "The facts about this issue are resonating with more and more folks" regardless of political affiliations.
[Dan Morris-Young writes for NCR from the West Coast.]