A move to repeal South Dakota's death penalty was rejected Thursday by state lawmakers after a sharp debate on the religious implications of executions.
The House Health Committee voted 8-5 to kill a bill that would have converted the sentences of all death row inmates to life in prison without parole.
Rep. Gerald Lange, D-Madison, who also has sought to get rid of the death penalty in past years, said executions run counter to the teachings of the Bible.
The Ten Commandments include a ban on killing, and Jesus proclaimed "the law of love instead of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," Lange said.
"Either you believe the Christian message or you don't. The Christian message is clear that thou shalt not kill," Lange said.
Rep. Nick Moser, R-Yankton, said no one should question the faith of those who support the death penalty. He said making a vote on the death penalty a test of religion is a misinterpretation of the Gospels.
South Dakota currently has two people on death row. The state Supreme Court ruled that another condemned man could be resentenced.
Ed and Peggy Schaeffer of Black Hawk, whose 22-year-old son, Donnivan, was killed by one of the death row inmates, urged the committee to keep the death penalty. Killers should not be allowed to live even in prison, where they are a danger to guards and other inmates, they said.
Ed Schaeffer said convicted killers in the past got furloughs to attend funerals or sometimes escaped.
"Life without parole doesn't necessarily mean they're going to end up staying in Sioux Falls in the state penitentiary," he said.
Attorney General Marty Jackley said the death penalty should be retained because it helps protect the public and deters others from committing murders.
Jackley said South Dakota's death penalty law requires a jury to find aggravating factors before sentencing someone to death, and the penalty is used only in rare cases.
"It has not been overly used in South Dakota. I ask you to let us have that tool to protect the public," the attorney general said.
South Dakota has executed 17 killers, beginning with Jack McCall for gunning down Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 in Deadwood, Jackley said. The last execution was in 2007, when 25-year-old Elijah Page gave up his appeals and asked to be executed for the 2000 torture and murder of 19-year-old Chester Allan Poage near Spearfish.
Lange said at least 139 death row inmates across the nation have been freed after DNA tests or other evidence proved they were innocent. Appeals in death penalty cases cost the state more than the expense of keeping someone in prison for life, he said.
But Jackley said appeals in death sentence cases are not more expensive than those involving killers who are sentenced to life. The threat of the death penalty also leads some killers to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, he said.
The two on South Dakota's death row are still pursuing appeals nearly two decades after first being convicted.
Donald Moeller was sentenced to death for the 1990 killing and rape of 9-year-old Becky O'Connell.
Charles Russell Rhines was convicted for killing Donnivan Schaeffer during the 1992 burglary of a Rapid City doughnut shop where Schaeffer worked.
A third inmate, Briley Piper, had been sentenced to be executed in the case involving Page, but the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that Piper could be resentenced because he did not understand his right to be sentenced by a jury rather than a judge when he pleaded guilty to killing Poage. A jury will determine whether Piper is sentenced to death or life in prison.