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Death Penalty Stalemate in Montana

Lethal injection faces a major roadblock in Montana. Credit: davidhills/iStock
Lethal injection faces a major roadblock in Montana. Credit: davidhills/iStock
October 8, 2015

HELENA, Mont. - The death penalty is at a stalemate in Montana, after a judge blocked the use of a particular lethal injection drug on Tuesday. Capital punishment remains legal, and while efforts to abolish it have failed, so have efforts to revive it.

The judge ruled that pentobarbital cannot be used because it is not "ultra-fast acting" as required by state law.

The Department of Justice would not say whether it intends to appeal, only that its attorneys are looking into their options. Caitlin Borgmann, executive director with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued to block the drug, says they'll continue to fight for complete abolition and calls this de facto moratorium "the next best thing."

"The only other option open to the state would be for the Legislature to amend the statute so that the state is not required to use an ultra-fast-acting barbiturate," says Borgmann. "I don't think there is the political will to do that in the Legislature; certainly we would fight any efforts to do that."

A move to repeal the death penalty failed on a tie vote in the Montana Legislature earlier this year.

State Representative Tom Berry (R-Roundup), a death penalty advocate, says he doubts the Legislature will move to change the law to allow for drugs that aren't ultra-fast acting - meaning drugs that would take a few seconds longer to render the condemned prisoner unconscious.

"In my opinion, with the current governor we have, he would never sign that type of legislation so I think it's a moot point," says Berry.

The governor's office declined to comment. This issue has been tied up in the courts for many years. Montana's last execution took place in 2006.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - MT