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August 24, 2011

Montana death penalty process assailed as unconstitutional based on Sixth Amendment

As detailed in this local article, headlined "Attorney says death penalty unconstitutional," lawyers for a Montana double-murderer are pressing a Sixth Amendment attack on the state's administration of capital punishment.  Here are the details:

An attorney for accused double murderer Tyler Michael Miller argued that Montana’s death penalty statutes are unconstitutional Tuesday during a brief hearing in Flathead District Court.

Miller, formerly known as Cheetham, was arrested on Christmas Day 2010 hours after allegedly gunning down his ex-girlfriend Jaimi Hurlbert and her 15-year-old daughter, Alyssa Burkett.   Miller’s attorney Ed Sheehy reiterated his written arguments included in a June filing opposing the state’s practice of allowing judges rather than juries to issue capital sentences.

He also noted that Montana law dictates that there must be a presence of aggravating factors and an absence of mitigating factors for a court to pronounce the death penalty to a defendant.  “It is only when there are no such circumstances that the death penalty can be imposed and that is a decision that must be made by a jury and sadly not by the court alone,” Sheehy said.

One such mitigating factor potentially could be mental deficiency or disease, an avenue being explored by Miller’s defense.   Experts retained by Miller’s defense have concluded that Miller has long abused drugs and suffered from various mental disorders....

[District Judge Stewart] Stadler did not provide a timetable for when he might rule on Miller’s motion.   He said the timing of future rulings and hearings will be contingent on whether or not Miller is ruled competent to stand trial.  Two mental health professionals from the Montana State Hospital recently were scheduled to evaluate him.

This press report suggests that competency issues might get in the way of this case becoming an importance vehicle for exploring the echoes of the Supreme Court's Ring ruling concerning the impact of the Sixth Amendment on death penalty sentencing.  Also, I do not know if Montana's rarely-used death penalty is clearly problematic in light of Ring.  But I do know that eventually, the Supreme Court is going to have to address some of the Sixth Amendment questions raised but not resolved a decade ago in Ring.

August 24, 2011 at 11:27 AM | Permalink

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