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Unclear if botched Oklahoma execution will impact Ronald Smith case

CALGARY — The botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate buttresses the case of a Canadian man using the courts to try to avoid a lethal injection in Montana, his lawyer says.

Ron Waterman, lead lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Montana, began a lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of Alberta’s Ronald Smith and another death-row inmate in the state. It argues the lethal injections Montana uses are cruel and unusual punishment and violate the right to human dignity.

Montana district court Judge Jeffery Sherlock ruled in September 2012 that the injections were unconstitutional. He pointed to a lack of training for individuals who administer the drugs and a discrepancy over whether two or three drugs should be used.

Earlier this week in Oklahoma, convicted killer Clayton Lockett began writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow while undergoing that state’s new lethal injection combination.

The execution was halted, but the 38-year-old died of a heart attack about a half hour later.

“Obviously this will have an impact, but whether it will have an impact on the pending case or on future matters is yet to be determined,” said Waterman. “This situation only underscores that, as states experiment with different drugs, they do so risking exposing inmates to pain and suffering in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

The Eighth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution includes a cruel and unusual punishments clause that restricts the severity of punishments that state and federal governments may impose upon persons who have been convicted of a criminal offence.

Waterman’s lawsuit is on hold while Sherlock considers whether the state can change the way it carries out executions without seeking the approval of politicians in the legislature. A decision on that issue expected within a matter of months.

Smith was convicted in 1983 for shooting Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit while he was high on drugs and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont.

He had been taking 30 to 40 hits of LSD and consuming between 12 and 18 beers a day at the time of the murders. He refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row and spend the rest of his life in prison.

Three weeks later, he pleaded guilty. He asked for and was given a death sentence.

Smith later had a change of heart and has had a number of execution dates set and overturned.

 
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