Attorneys Argue that Death Penalty Law is Unconstitutional

By Beacon Staff

The attorneys for a Kalispell man accused of murdering a woman and her daughter on Christmas Day are seeking to declare the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.

Tyler Michael Miller, formerly known as Tyler Michael Cheetham, is accused of shooting to death his ex-girlfriend Jaimi Hurlbert, 35, and her daughter, Alyssa Burkett, 15, last December. He faces capital punishment if convicted.

Miller’s attorneys, public defenders Noel Larrivee and Edmund Sheehy, filed a motion to declare Montana’s death penalty unconstitutional in June. His counsel reiterated the motion’s points during an Aug. 23 hearing in front of District Court Judge Stewart Stadler.

Sheehy argued that the state’s death penalty law incorrectly gives judges the power to determine if there were aggravated circumstances warranting capital punishment.

In their June filing, the attorneys wrote state law violates the U.S. Constitution, which, in part, requires 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 Ring v. Arizona, in which the court holds that juries should decide if there are aggravating circumstances to support the death penalty.

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

The attorneys also argue that Montana law violates the Constitution because juries are not allowed to determine if there are mitigating factors that would prohibit the death penalty.

The Flathead County Attorney’s office filed notice of its intent to seek the death penalty in Miller’s case in March. The paperwork, filed by County Attorney Ed Corrigan, portrays Miller as remorseless and premeditating in the murders.

Miller’s case marks the first time since the 1983 conviction of Ronald Allen Smith that the Flathead County attorney has sought capital punishment.

Stadler has not said when he will rule on the defense attorney’s motion. Miller has a mental competency hearing scheduled for Sept. 28. Previous filings indicated that he has a history of substance abuse and psychiatric conditions.

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