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Montana judge strikes down state lethal injection law

Montana's Lewis and Clark County District Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that the state's lethal injection method [technical manual, PDF] violates the provision of the Montana constitution [text, PDF] that forbids cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana [advocacy website] on behalf of two death row inmates. Judge Jeffrey Sherlock held that Montana's execution procedure, which involves injections of three different drugs, is cruel and unusual under US Supreme Court [official website] precedent. Noting that the Montana constitution's "human dignity" clause requires the court to give heightened scrutiny to a claim of cruel and unusual punishment, Sherlock ruled that because the three-drug method used by Montana's Department of Corrections differed from the state's statutory protocol requiring a two-drug lethal injection method, mistakes in the execution process could result:

[T]he fact that the statutory protocol is different from the protocol adopted by the Department of Corrections increases the likelihood of confusion and error in the execution. [This] create[s] a substantial risk of serious harm violative of the Plaintiffs' right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.
Sherlock also faulted a state practice [Reuters report] that allows a prison warden with no medical training or execution experience to determine whether a prisoner is unconscious before a fatal drug is administered. It is unclear if the state of Montana plans to appeal the ruling.

The death penalty [JURIST news archive] continues to be a controversial legal and moral issue around the world. Two weeks ago a UN human rights expert condemned Iraq [JURIST report] for allegedly using its death penalty in an arbitrary manner that deprived people of due process of law. Earlier in August UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] urged the Gambia to enact a moratorium on the death penalty [JURIST report]. In July Singapore announced it planned to relax mandatory death sentences in certain cases [JURIST report]. Just one week before UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] called for an end to capital punishment [JURIST report]. In April an initiative in California dealing with overhauling death penalty laws in the state [JURIST report] made it on to the ballot for a November vote.

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