Monday, May 5, 2014

Montana’s Death Penalty, Part 1

It seems that with the botched Oklahoma execution in the news, people might be interested in Montana's execution laws and procedures. This is adapted in two parts from my Montana chapter in Gordon Bakken's book Invitation to an Execution.

Montana’s last hanging was in 1943. In 1983, the legislature amended the law to allow the condemned to choose hanging or lethal injection. Changes also made county executions obsolete and specified the Montana State Prison as the place of execution. These changes essentially overhauled Montana’s death penalty. These changes were untried until the execution of Duncan Peder McKenzie Jr. in 1995. Sentenced in 1975 for the murder of teacher Lana Harding, McKenzie appealed numerous times. Governor Marc Racicot wrestled with his pleas for clemency. A converted house trailer at the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge became the death chamber. Wearing orange prison overalls and lying on a gurney, McKenzie had no last words. He was the first in Montana to die of lethal injection.

The Montana State Prison does not have an official Death Row; the term is symbolic. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 78-57.125
When the 1997 Legislature further amended the law to eliminate hanging as an option, Terry Allen Langford had already been on “death row”—a symbolic term as there has never been a formally designated “death row” in the Montana State Prison—for nine years. He received the death penalty in Powell County for the kidnapping and brutal slayings of Edward “Ned” and Celene Blackwood at their ranch near Ovando in 1988. Langford's execution was set for January 17, 1992. He chose hanging but then moved for the District Court to declare hanging cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of his constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment. The court declared the position moot since Langford himself elected the method.

Years passed. As Langford initiated further proceedings, the legislature removed hanging as an option in 1997. Hanging passed into the annals of the state’s history. Langford then argued that the amending of the law deprived him of his choice of death by hanging—and the final opportunity to avoid the death penalty. If the Supreme Court had agreed that hanging was cruel and unusual punishment, the law would not have allowed his execution. Langford, also convicted of the murder of an inmate during a prison riot in 1991, lost this argument and became the second person in Montana to die by lethal injection in the converted house trailer on February 24, 1998.

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