Accused Murderer Challenges State Death Penalty Law

By Beacon Staff

A Kalispell man facing capital punishment on charges that he killed his former girlfriend and her daughter last Christmas is asking the district court to find the state’s death penalty laws unconstitutional.

Tyler Michael Miller, also known as Tyler Cheetham, is charged with two counts of deliberate homicide after the shooting deaths of Jaimi Hurlbert, 35, and Alyssa Burkett, 15, last December.

Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan filed paperwork on March 9 that signaled his office’s intention to seek the death penalty in Miller’s case, the first time the county attorney’s office has done so since 1983.

However, Miller’s attorneys – public defenders Ed Sheehy and Noel Larrivee – filed a motion on June 2 asking a judge to declare the state’s death penalty unconstitutional because judges, rather than a jury, determine whether capital punishment is appropriate.

“Taken as a whole, the statutory procedure of Montana’s death penalty requires that a judge, rather than a jury, determine the factual basis for whether a defendant shall receive a death sentence,” the attorneys wrote.

This state law violates the Sixth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the attorneys wrote, which require that, “other than prior convictions, any fact increasing a penalty beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The attorneys cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision from a case in Arizona, in which the court holds that juries should decide if there are aggravating circumstances to support the death penalty.

Montana law gives that power to judges, which the attorneys wrote violates the Sixth Amendment.

According to the Arizona court case, Ring v. Arizona, Montana is one of four states that give capital sentencing fact-finding power and capital punishment sentencing power entirely to judges.

Furthermore, the attorneys wrote that Montana law also violates the Constitution because juries are not allowed to decide if there are mitigating circumstances that could prohibit the death penalty.

The motion also cites violations of the Eighth Amendment, which the attorneys wrote gives juries the power to decide if the capital punishment is necessary.

“Montana’s death penalty procedure fails to provide the degree of accuracy and fact finding that the Eighth Amendment requires for capital sentencing,” the motion states.

Miller appeared in front of District Court Judge Stewart Stadler last week during a hearing in which his attorneys asked the judge to issue a “narrowly drawn” order that would restrain prosecutors from making extrajudicial statements about the case to the media.

The request, however, was “not intended to impede the media’s right to appear or be involved,” Larrivee said.

Prosecutors said they would have no trouble following the rules of professional conduct in this case.

Stadler said he would issue an order reinforcing the already existing rules of conduct, noting that “it does not restrain the media, it does not restrain the files.”

However, Miller will appear again later this month for a hearing on whether the media can be present for a suppression hearing.

Miller’s attorneys would like to suppress his confession about the shooting because he said he was high on methamphetamines when he was being questioned.

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