HELENA - The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a stay of execution for a Canadian man as the death-row inmate challenges the state's method of lethal injection.
The justices had been asked to intervene after two lower-court judges issued conflicting orders regarding the execution of Ronald Allen Smith.
District Judge John Larson set a Jan. 31 execution date for Smith just two days after District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ordered a stay of execution while Smith's constitutional challenge proceeds.
Larson presides over the criminal case against Smith, now 53, who pleaded guilty in 1983 in the fatal shooting of Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit near East Glacier the year before.
Sherlock is overseeing the inmate's civil challenge of the state's execution methods.
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Larson asked the Supreme Court to void Sherlock's stay of execution, saying it infringed on Larson's exclusive jurisdiction over the case and that he couldn't be bound by another district judge's order.
State attorney Chris Tweeten, responding on behalf of Sherlock, said Sherlock's order does not try to overturn or change the death sentence or prevent Larson from setting an execution date.
The Supreme Court agreed with Tweeten.
"We conclude that neither court is acting under a mistake of law or causing a gross injustice," the Supreme Court decision reads.
"While we understand Judge Larson's concerns over the prospect of conflicting orders, the fact is that Mr. Smith's execution has - over the past 15 years - been stayed by various state and federal courts while those courts weighed the propriety of Mr. Smith's conviction and sentence," the justices added.
A message left with Larson's chambers was not immediately returned Tuesday.
Ronald Waterman, Smith's attorney, argues that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment, and that there is no approved place for executions at the state prison. The trailer typically used for executions was moved earlier this year to make way for an addition.
"Our position had been and will continue to be that this is an important constitutional issue that needs to be addressed by the courts," Waterman said Tuesday. "The Department of Corrections, we believe, will follow that injunction and we won't see any further activities about the execution until Judge Sherlock's order is satisfied."
Prosecutors alleged that Smith, a native of Red Deer, Alberta, robbed the cousins from Browning, Mont., and then shot them in the woods with a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle.
Smith was offered a plea agreement that called for a 110-year prison sentence in 1983, but he rejected that in favor of a death sentence. He changed his mind the next year and has been fighting his death sentence ever since.
The Montana Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in his case in 1986. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case.