Civil Rights and Church Groups Ask Montana Supreme Court for Right to Challenge Lethal Injections

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
August 10, 2006 12:00 am

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ACLU of Montana
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HELENA, MT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, Montana Association of Churches, Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Montana Catholic Conference, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, 11 legislators and two former justices today petitioned the state Supreme Court to allow them to challenge the pending execution of death row inmate David Dawson.

The groups based their appeal on the public’s right to know the details of death sentence protocols, which have not been released by the state of Montana. According to the groups, the way the drugs are administered under current protocols can subject the condemned to severe pain before death in violation of both the Montana and United States Constitutions.

A lower court rejected the groups’ move to intervene in the case because Dawson elected to forgo his right to appeal his execution by lethal injection.

“The ACLU of Montana maintains that the right to know belongs to all Montana citizens, especially with respect to discovering the nature and extent of execution procedures,” said Betsy Griffing, ACLU General Counsel. “The district court’s order appears to allow David Dawson’s privacy interests to trump this right to know. The ACLU contends that David Dawson’s right of privacy should not extend to an unconstitutional lethal injection protocol and that his right of privacy should not encompass his right to be unconstitutionally tortured to death.”

In a previous ruling, the Montana Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case, but Justice James C. Nelson said he had significant concerns about the constitutionality of lethal injection. The ACLU’s latest petition asks the high court to reverse an opinion by the district court that the groups lack standing to seek a stay in the execution.

“If the Montana Supreme Court also denies the stay, we expect that after the execution one or more death penalty inmates will join in the litigation to challenge the lethal injection protocol and that we ultimately will obtain a decision from a court that the protocol is unconstitutional as it presently is applied,” said ACLU of Montana Executive Director Scott Crichton. “The ACLU continues to believe, as Justice Nelson stated, that this is an important issue which will not go away and needs to be addressed by the courts unless the Legislature decides to amend the process and correct the deficiencies. Ultimately we expect that the day will come when the whole death penalty process is rejected when Montana, like more than a dozen states and all industrialized nations, comes to realize that a penalty which is justified exclusively upon retribution is poor and ineffective public policy.”

According to court documents, over the last several months, the United States Supreme Court and courts in California, Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and the District of Columbia have stayed executions pending investigations into the constitutionality of lethal injection protocols similar to Montana’s. In addition, federal courts in two states, Missouri and Arkansas, have recently barred all executions by lethal injection until changes are made to those states’ lethal injection protocols.

The states of Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia have no death penalty.

Dawson’s execution by lethal injection is scheduled to take place tonight at midnight.

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