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By AMY BETH HANSON, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana House committee tabled a bill to abolish the death penalty Tuesday shortly after hearing testimony, as the legislature closes in on next week's transmittal deadline.

Democratic Rep. Ed Stafman of Bozeman told members of the House Judiciary Committee he brought the bill to replace the death penalty with the punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole to eliminate the chance of killing an innocent person, reduce the involved legal costs and get rid of its inconsistent application.

Other supporters of Stafman’s bill include religious leaders, faith organizations, human rights groups and defense attorneys who said there are few attorneys who are qualified to defend capital crimes.

Amy Sings In the Timber, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project, said there have been wrongful murder convictions and a prosecutor’s threat to seek the death penalty can be used as leverage to negotiate a plea agreement.

State lawmakers have rejected efforts to repeal the death penalty for at least the past two decades.

The last execution in Montana was in 2006. In recent years, Montana has not had access to an “ultra fast-acting barbiturate” as required by state law to carry out capital punishment. The 2021 Legislature is moving forward a bill to change the drug requirements to carry out executions.

Two Montana inmates currently face the death penalty.

William J. Gollehon has been convicted in seven murders, including a Billings woman in 1985, fellow inmate Gerald Pillegi in 1990 and for his involvement in the deaths of five men during a 1991 Montana State Prison riot, including one who was scheduled to testify against Gollehon in Pillegi’s death.

Ronald Allen Smith was sentenced to death in March 1983 for kidnapping and killing Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit in August 1982.

Opponents of Stafman's bill argued the death penalty should still be on the books in cases where someone kills a law enforcement officer or kills someone in prison after being sentenced for murder.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said a decision to pursue a death penalty is made in consultation with the attorney general's office to make sure the decision is made objectively because such murders are “horrific, they are committed by people who have no respect for human life."

His office is seeking the death penalty against Patricia Batts of West Yellowstone, who is charged with deliberate homicide in the February 2020 death of her 12-year-old grandson, James Alex Hurley. Hurley was abused my numerous family members, prosecutors said.

Society should retain the ability to impose the most serious remedy in cases of the most serious crimes, said Broadwater County attorney Cory Swanson, who initially sought the death penalty in the 2017 killing of Sheriff's Deputy Mason Moore. Swanson withdrew the death penalty in July 2018 after an analysis of defendant Lloyd Barrus' history of mental illness.

Stafman's bill was set aside on an 11-8 vote.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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NJ GOP Questions Murphy's COVID-19 Handling in Hearing

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Rebuffed by the Democrats who control the Legislature, New Jersey Republican lawmakers Friday conducted their own hearing on Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy's management of the coronavirus pandemic, questioning his administration's handling of the virus in nursing homes.

The committee met for the first time Friday remotely with testimony set to be given by doctors, nurses, nursing home operators, veterans homes residents and others.

Lawmakers focused in part on New Jersey's March 31, 2020, health department directive requiring nursing homes not to turn away COVID-19-positive patients. The policy made headlines because of news that New York released 9,000 previously unknown virus patients into facilities under a similar policy.

New Jersey's policy hasn't been linked to a similar figure, but the legislators questioned if there could be deaths connected to the policy because the administration hasn't given a full accounting of its handling of the pandemic.

Indeed, lawmakers seemed left with more questions than answers Friday.

In part, that's because Murphy's administration declined to make health department officials available. Democratic lawmakers also did not join them to form a select committee with subpoena power that could compel Murphy administration officials to testify at the hearing.

“We're not going to get the answers that we're entitled to,” state Sen. Kristin Corrado said. “They owe the victims and their families an answer.”

Murphy was asked about the GOP-led committee this week and said he didn't “begrudge anyone's right to assess what's going on." He also said the state “got clobbered” in long-term care facilities and attributed it to part of the state being close to New York.

Murphy also alluded to the March 31 directive and noted that while nursing homes were not to turn COVID-19 patients away from such facilities, they were also required to separate residents who were positive.

Murphy's administration rescinded its nursing home policy on April 12, about a month before New York.

GOP lawmakers expect to hold a series of similar hearings.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tags: New Jersey, Associated Press

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