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Montana lawmakers oppose more death penalty drug options

April 16, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Seven Republicans joined Democrats in the Montana Senate to kill a bill that would have given the state more latitude in selecting drugs to carry out lethal injections, as companies restrict access to drugs used in executions.

“I was blown away,” by Thursday’s 24-26 second-reading vote, Democratic Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula said Friday. She spoke against the legislation, arguing there aren’t drugs available to carry out lethal injection in ways that don’t result in cruel and unusual punishment.

The death penalty has been on hold in Montana since 2015, when District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said the state’s plan to use pentobarbital to render an inmate unconscious did not meet state law requiring the use of an ultra-fast-acting barbiturate.

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Attorney General Austin Knudsen requested a bill with a less specific protocol — one that would require the state to carry out the death penalty through “an intravenous injection of a substance or substances in a lethal quantity sufficient to cause death.”

“The companies that make ultra fast-acting barbiturates figured out that states were using it to inflict the death penalty and as a matter of corporate protest, I guess you would say, they stopped making it and they stopped importing those drugs,” Knudsen told the House Judiciary Committee in February.

During the Senate hearing Thursday, Republican Sen. Brad Molnar of Laurel said he was opposed to the bill, noting that he was swayed by the fact that people have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.

“Whether you kill somebody cruel and unusually or hit ’em with a lightning bolt, they’re dead,” Molnar said, adding the Senate passed a bill on Monday to provide financial compensation to people who serve prison time after being wrongly convicted.

“When you separate body and soul, there is no money settlement,” he said.

Republican Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell countered that the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony about drugs that can be prescribed by physicians to allow terminally ill people to die peacefully.

“So there are substance or substances sufficient to cause death out there that, they can go peacefully,” he said.

While lawmakers can ask for a reconsideration of bills that fail on second reading, Sands said she doesn’t believe that will happen because seven Republicans voted against it. The result would leave Montana without a way to carry out the death penalty for two more years.

A separate bill to eliminate the death penalty was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee. The Legislature has rejected similar bills for at least the past two decades.

Montana has two men facing the death penalty, William Jay Gollehon and Ronald Allen Smith. The state last carried out an execution in 2006.