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Lawsuit challenges lethal injection of Canadian

Montana execution method cruel and unusual punishment, ACLU argues

A legal challenge of how Montana carries out its death penalty is to go before a judge today for a death-row Canadian waiting to hear whether he will be granted clemency.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil lawsuit on Ron Smith's behalf in 2008 that argues the lethal injections the state uses to execute people are cruel and unusual punishment and violate the right to human dignity.

A trial is scheduled for Sept. 4, but both sides are asking Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in Helena, Montana, to simply look at the evidence and make a decision immediately.

"We're going to ask the judge to say yes or no as a matter of law and therefore there's no need to put evidence on," Ron Waterman, a lawyer for the civil liberties union, said Tuesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"What we've got from the discoveries that we've engaged in so far demonstrates that the protocol is just so deficient that it's unconstitutional and the court can declare it unconstitutional as a matter of law," he added. "I think the case is capable of being decided [today] in our favour and, quite frankly, that's what I expect."

Waterman said the judge could rule that lethal injections are unconstitutional or that they are fine the way they are.

He could also decide to go ahead and sit through a full trial with evidence.

Whatever his ruling, Sherlock is likely to take his time to write a "fairly succinct" decision which Waterman doesn't expect until later this summer.

Smith, originally from Red Deer, Alta., pleaded guilty in 1983 to shooting cousins Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man Jr. in the head with a sawed-off, 22-calibre rifle while he was high on drugs and alcohol. Their bodies were dumped in the woods near East Glacier, Montana.

He refused a plea deal and asked for a death sentence but later changed his mind. Three decades later, and after several execution dates were set and countless legal arguments made, his request for clemency was rejected this spring by the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole.

His chance to live out his days in a tiny cell at Montana State Prison is now in the hands of Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

"It might provide the governor an additional reason to say at least there's been litigation raised that questions the protocol and this litigation is going to extend out for years and years and it's time to put this to bed," said Waterman.

The lawsuit initially stalled while Montana attempted to upgrade the trailer where state executions take place.

The Montana Department of Corrections revised its lethal injection protocol last August. But the civil liberties union says it remains insufficient.