updated 2/23/2007 6:53:06 PM ET 2007-02-23T23:53:06

The Democratic-controlled Senate on Friday gave preliminary approval to abolishing the death penalty in Montana.

After a lengthy debate in which lawmakers quoted Jesus, Thomas Jefferson and Ted Bundy, the Senate voted 27-21 to approve the measure.

The measure's sponsor, Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, implored his colleagues to "show true political leadership" and do away with capital punishment, despite polls that show the majority of Montanans support it.

Proponents of the measure said the death penalty is costly, unfair, and does not serve as a deterrent.

"I don't think we should be in the killing business," said Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish.

Opponents countered that the death penalty was needed to help victim's families.

"This is simply closure," said Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell.

The measure still faces a final Senate vote, before going to the Republican-controlled House.

Similar attempts have failed
Efforts to abolish the death penalty have failed in each of the past three legislative sessions. There are currently two prisoners on death row in Montana and the state has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. The most recent execution, of convicted murderer David Dawson, occurred just last year.

Opponents argued that the low number of executions proved the penalty was being used fairly for only the most dangerous criminals.

Sen. Jerry O'Neil, R-Kalispell, noted that one of the current death row inmates had killed a fellow prisoner with a baseball bat. He said some people are so dangerous that they can't be held in available prisons and the death penalty was a better alternative.

"It's obvious ... that we can't give these criminals, these animals, one scintilla of freedom in prison," he said.

Republicans largely opposed the measure, Democrats largely supported it. But there were a few members of both parties that switched sides.

One of them, Sen. Roy Brown, R-Billings, said his anti-abortion views led him to change his mind and vote for abolishing the death penalty.

"Even a guilty life is worth saving," he said.

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