The gold rush and frontier society had a significant impact on Montana’s history with the death penalty. Gold was discovered in 1862 and thousands of people rushed to Montana to extract it. The U.S. government didn’t have the personel to control such a vast area and Montana’s early mining camps were outside the bounds of any organized law. Trials for those accused of crimes were often for show, and the preferred method of execution was hanging.
Between December 1863 and January 1864, 25 people were hanged in Montana by vigilante gangs. The bloodiest run of vigilante justice in U.S. history happened in eastern Montana when a group that called itself “Stewart’s Stranglers” rounded up and hanged 35 suspected cattle rustlers in 1884.
After the 1972 US Supreme Court decision nullifying the death penalty laws of many states, including Montana’s, the state reinstated the penalty in 1974.
All executions — vigilante and state-sanctioned — were conducted by hanging until 1995. So far, Montana has executed 72 men, according to state and historical figures. Until the 1940s, executions were handled by the counties, Edgerton said. The state maintained a traveling gallows and invitations were sometimes issued. The state’s last hanging in Montana was in 1943, and it was also the state’s last execution for 52 years until 1995, when Duncan McKenzie was executed by lethal injection after spending 20 years on death row. One other person has been executed since 1995, and there are currently two persons on death row.
Today, lethal injection is the only death sentence method allowed in the state. In both 2007 and 2009, the Montana Senate passed an abolition bill to end the use of the death penalty, but both were defeated in the state House Judiciary committee and, in 2009, the loss was by one vote.
CMN State Spotlight – August 2012
“We have a history of small but important victories in the abolition movement here in Montana.”
CMN State Spotlight – November 2010
“Montana is in a unique position to answer the Catholic Church’s call to abolish the death penalty.”