A proposal to repeal the death penalty in South Dakota narrowly failed Friday morning in committee. Members of House State Affairs heard testimony and debated the measure for more than two hours. The proposed legislation repeals the death penalty, but isn’t retroactive —meaning death sentences imposed prior to July 1, 2014 aren’t affected. It instead replaces capital punishment with life in prison without parole.
Proponents to repeal the death penalty argue that it doesn’t deter people from committing murders. They say many victims’ families fight for the penalty out of vengeance and don’t feel relief when it’s over because their loved ones are still gone.
Representative Steve Hickey brings House Bill 1183 to legislators. Hickey says it’s wrong to kill a defenseless person. He says putting a person to sleep is the easy way out.
“Most on death row have known violence and abuse their whole lives. That works psychologically this way—monkey see monkey do. So we have a broken society—broken societies producing broken people. I’m not saying there’s no personal responsibility. There is. Life in prison without parole is entirely justified. The point is violence begets violence. Are we thinking this through? I would suggest the best way to fight with death is through life,” Hickey says.
Lynette Johnson disagrees. Her husband, Ron Johnson, was a corrections officer at the state penitentiary when two inmates killed him while trying to escape. She describes how he was beaten to death with a pipe – and includes pictures. Johnson says prisoners, even the most dangerous, can see loved ones and receive letters, and that’s not fair.
“I would give and live out of a car, I would give our house, I would give our vehicles, I would give every single thing we’ve earned to get a visit, to see Ron, to hear his voice, to get a letter. Ron and I had something really special going. And that was just ripped, ripped out of my life,” Johnson says.
Johnson says legislators need to be aware of the prison system and focus on keeping officers safe.
Other opponents are concerned with the language of the law. They say those currently on death row could fight their death sentences if they are still going through the appeals process.
Members of the State Affairs committee have differing views on whether society is safer with the death penalty in place. They deferred the measure to the 41st day by a vote of 7 to 6.