ACLU tells District Court Judge Montana execution method is unconstitutional

ACLU Attorney Ron Waterman argues before District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock

The Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union continues to argue for changes to the state’s execution policies. The ACLU argued before District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock Wednesday, saying the lethal injection procedure used by the Department of Corrections amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

But the state defends the policy.

Helena Attorney Ron Waterman is representing the ACLU in their lawsuit over the states lethal injection policy. He begins by telling District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock the nation’s highest court treats execution policies with special care, because, as Waterman says, death is different.

“Once the execution occurs,” Waterman said, “if it occurs in a matter that is unconstitutional, there is no reprieve. There is no opportunity to undo that.”

Thus, he says, absolute detail must be spelled out in state execution policy to prevent unconstitutional suffering. ACLU officials say that’s not currently the case. The organization first filed its lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of Ronald Allen Smith—a Canadian double-murderer on Montana’s death row. The other death row inmate in the state, William Gollehon later joined the suit.

Montana uses a three drug cocktail for executions. The first renders the inmate unconscious, the second paralyzes the muscles, and the third induces a heart attack.

This system has caused problems in other states after several botched executions. If the first drug is not given just right, the inmate may seem unconscious and won’t be able to move, but will still be able to feel the second two drugs—which are reportedly very painful.

Ron Waterman says Montana is the only state not to require relevant medical training for those administering the execution.

“So we don’t know in Montana what it is that the individuals who are going into this execution chamber have in the way of background, have in the way of experience,” Waterman said.

The Montana Department of Corrections argues the execution method passes constitutional muster. Attorney for the state, Mark Fowler.

“The execution procedure is not a medical procedure,” said Mark Fowler, an attorney for the state.

Fowler says prior cases in the state have not set precedent saying medical professionals have to be involved in the process. Execution teams do receive training and oversight from physicians. He says there is no such thing as a perfect execution, but lethal injection is the most humane way of carrying out the act. And he says Montana has not had any history of problems under current policy.

“Frankly, without being facetious why wouldn’t we be trusted, what evidence is there that we can’t be trusted. We’ve had three flawless executions,” Fowler said.

There is no exact timeline on when Judge Sherlock will decide the case. A hold has been placed on executions until a decision is reached.



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