Christmas Day murders: Suspect's attorneys say death penalty law unconstitutional

Christmas Day murders: Suspect's attorneys say death penalty law unconstitutional

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KALISPELL - Attorneys for a Kalispell man accused of gunning down his ex-girlfriend and her teenage daughter on Christmas Day told a state judge Tuesday that Montana's death penalty law should be declared unconstitutional.

Flathead County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Tyler Michael Miller, 34, who is charged with two counts of deliberate homicide for the Dec. 25, 2010, shooting deaths of Jaimi Hurlbert, 35, and Alyssa Burkett, 15.

On Tuesday, Miller and his attorneys appeared before Flathead District Judge Stewart Stadler and argued that Montana's death penalty statute violates the U.S. Constitution.

Ed Sheehy, a public defender representing Miller, said the Montana death penalty law erroneously vests power in the state's judiciary to determine whether aggravating circumstances exist to warrant capital punishment, rather than in impartial juries.

"It is only when there are no mitigating factors calling for leniency that the death penalty can be imposed, and those factors must be decided by a jury, not by a lone employee of the state," Sheehy said.

Prosecutors assert the aggravating circumstances of the murders lie within the premeditated and brutal nature of Miller's alleged crime. Those circumstances support the death penalty under Montana law, which is in line with the U.S. Constitution, Deputy Flathead County Attorney Lori Adams said.

"We believe the statute is constitutional," Adams said.

Sheehy cited a 2002 Supreme Court ruling - Ring v. Arizona - which holds that the Sixth Amendment requires an impartial jury to determine the aggravating factors necessary to impose the death penalty.

Although Montana law prohibits the death penalty when mitigating factors call for leniency, it prohibits juries from making that determination, Sheehy said.

Sheehy also cited a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Summerlin v. Stewart in which the court held that juries, not judges, must decide when the death penalty should be imposed.

"Juries are especially situated to ensure that unwarranted imposition of the death penalty does not occur," Sheehy stated in a written motion arguing the point.

The public defender also said Tuesday that Montana's death penalty law allows too much variance between the state's 22 judicial districts in defining mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

"In 22 different judicial districts we could have 22 different determinations of what constitutes aggravating circumstances," Sheehy said.

In late September, Miller is scheduled to appear again before Stadler for a competency hearing to determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial. All other proceedings in the case have been put on hold until such a determination is made.

Stadler said if Miller is determined to be incompetent he will be admitted to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs for 90 days to see if he can regain competency.

If he is determined competent, Stadler said there are too many outstanding motions that must be ruled on before the trial can begin in November, as previously scheduled.

"I don't see this going to trial in November, I'll just be candid," Stadler said.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

 

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