Supreme Court Decision Could Affect Flathead Murderer

By Beacon Staff

A recent U.S. Supreme Court announcement to examine the constitutionality and cruelty of lethal injection could influence the fate of Montana’s two death row inmates, one of which is a murderer convicted for crimes in the Flathead.

The Supreme Court announced in September it will hear the claims of two convicted murderers on death row in Kentucky who argue that lethal injection is “cruel and unusual punishment,” which violates the Eighth Amendment. The court hasn’t ruled on the constitutionality of an execution method since it voted to allow firing squads in Utah in 1895. Lethal injection is the only form of death penalty in Montana.

“Just because the Supreme Court made this announcement,” said Lynn Solomon of the Attorney General’s Office, “it doesn’t really come into play today (in Montana), because we don’t have anyone up for execution.”

One of Montana’s two death row inmates, Ronald Allen Smith, is in prison for two counts of deliberate homicide and aggravated kidnapping committed in Flathead County in 1982.

Of the 37 states that have lethal injection, 15 have either briefly or indefinitely suspended the execution method in the past two years. Last August, various groups and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union and state lawmakers, petitioned the Montana Supreme Court to stay the execution of David Dawson in light of concerns over lethal injection. The court denied their requests and Dawson was executed Aug. 11. The state won’t be faced with another execution before the U.S. Supreme Court makes its decision next year, at which time the Montana Department of Justice will make an announcement.

Opponents of lethal injection have long expressed concern over the brutality of dying by the needle. At issue is whether the three-chemical process – which most states, including Montana, use – is actually efficient and humane. One of the chemicals is an anesthetic, the second is a paralytic agent and the third is a poison, potassium chloride, that stops the heart. Opponents argue that the anesthetic often doesn’t work or is ineffective and prisoners die painful deaths, fully conscious of what’s happening.

Nearly every state with the death penalty offers lethal injection because of the belief that it is a safer and less cruel alternative to other execution methods: hanging, electrocution, gas chambers and the obscure firing squad, which is only legal in Utah and Oklahoma, but still unheard of in those states. Nebraska is the only state that doesn’t use lethal injection, offering electrocution instead.

Concern over lethal injection became highly publicized last year with a dramatic U.S. Supreme Court decision to stop the execution of Clarence Hill in Florida. The court announced at the last second it would hear Hill’s claim that the chemicals used in lethal injection would cause him excessive pain and violated his civil rights. Hill was already strapped to the gurney with needles in his arm when the Supreme Court stayed the execution.

Hill’s appeal was eventually overturned with 5-4 Supreme Court vote and he was executed on Sept. 20 of last year. Since his initial challenge, however, 15 states have stayed lethal injection executions. Though Montana hasn’t, the state’s Department of Corrections is happy that the U.S. Supreme Court is looking into the matter.

“We think it’s a good idea to take on this issue,” said Bob Anez of the Montana Department of Corrections. “It eliminates the need for a whole host of legal actions across the state – it’s getting an answer to a question that’s erupting around the nation.”

In 1982 Ronald Allen Smith of Alberta kidnapped two men, Harvey Mad Man, Jr., and Thomas Running Rabbit, Jr., and took them out to a rural wooded area of Flathead County. There he shot them at point-blank range. The following year, Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of deliberate homicide and kidnapping and was sentenced to death.

Only four years ago Montana had six death row inmates. But two of them were found dead in their cells, another was granted a life in prison re-sentencing and Dawson was executed last year. By comparison, California has 660 inmates on death row.

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