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Final brief on lethal injections with judge; could affect fate of Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith is shown on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, at Montanta State Prison in Deer Lodge. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

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Ronald Smith is shown on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, at Montanta State Prison in Deer Lodge. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

CALGARY - A ruling by a Montana judge is a step closer on whether the state can take a shortcut in its attempt to get approval to change the way it carries out executions.

Ron Waterman, lead lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the group has filed its final brief in a court challenge that could ultimately affect the fate of Canadian Ronald Smith.

Smith, originally from Red Deer, Alta., is on death row in Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge for murdering two men in 1982.

The civil liberties group filed a lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of Smith and another death-row inmate that argued the lethal injections used in state executions are cruel and unusual punishment and violate the right to human dignity.

Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey 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. He also questioned the method used to determine if an inmate is actually unconscious before receiving an injection.

His ruling gave hope to Smith.

But the Montana government convinced Sherlock to hear arguments from the state, which wants to bypass a requirement it would normally have to fill before getting the legislature's approval to change the way executions are carried out.

The case has been dragging on ever since.

"They want to change the rules without going through the legislature and we're saying not only can't you change the rules without going through the legislature, but the way in which you changed the rules was totally incorrect," Waterman said from Helena, Mont., in an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday.

"You have to go through a rule-making process, which means giving notice to the public, giving opportunities to be heard before adopting a rule."

It's now in the hands of Sherlock.

"This is the final briefing. This now puts all of those issues before the district judge and the judge will render a decision maybe within a couple of months — sometime in March or April," Waterman said.

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.

Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

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