DOJ: News Release

Statement from AG Mike McGrath Regarding the USSC Death Penalty Opinion

HELENA – Thursday morning, by a 5-4 vote, the United States Supreme Court held that its decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002)—that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find an aggravating factor necessary for the imposition of the death penalty—is a procedural rule of law and thus is not applied retroactively to a prisoner who was sentenced before Ring was decided.

“For Montana, this is a good decision. For the past two years the state has maintained that the Ring decision applied only to future cases,” McGrath said. “We welcome the Supreme Court’s clarification.”

The Summerlin opinion is available online. [7/16/08: Opinion no longer available on United States Supreme Court website; link changed to FindLaw website].

Montana has four individuals on death row. In the last two legislative sessions, changes to Montana law have addressed some the requirements of the Ring opinion.

The 2001 and 2003 Legislatures enacted and amended MCA 46-1-401, requiring that in addition to a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, juries must find that “enhancing” acts occur beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case of a homicide, for example, such acts might include torture, sexual assault or committing a homicide while already incarcerated.

Here is a brief look at some of the procedural history of the four men on Montana’s death row.

David Thomas Dawson

  • In 1987, a jury found Dawson guilty of three counts of deliberate homicide, four counts of aggravated kidnapping, and one count of robbery. The court sentenced Dawson to death.
  • The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence on direct appeal in 1988 and the United States Supreme Court denied review in 1989.
  • In 1989, Dawson filed a federal habeas corpus petition that contained unexhausted claims. The petition was stayed to allow Dawson to return to state court to exhaust his claims.
  • Dawson filed a state postconviction petition in 1991. Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied the petition in 1996. The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief in 2000.
  • Dawson filed a second amended federal habeas corpus petition in March 2001, which is pending.
  • Following the 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona, Dawson filed motions for new trial and to vacate the sentence of death in the state district court. Those motions are pending.
  • The federal district court stayed the penalty issues pending a decision on whether Ring was to be retroactively applied.

William Jay Gollehon

  • Gollehon was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death in 1992.
  • The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence on direct appeal and the United States Supreme Court denied review in 1994.
  • In 1995, Gollehon filed a federal habeas corpus petition that contained unexhausted claims. The court stayed the petition to allow Gollehon to exhaust his claims in state court.
  • In 1996, Gollehon filed a state postconviction petition that the Montana Supreme Court denied in 1999.
  • Gollehon’s habeas corpus petition is pending in federal district court. Following the decision in Ring v. Arizona, the federal district court stayed proceedings pending a determination whether Ring was to be retroactively applied.

Daniel Martin Johnson

  • A jury convicted him of deliberate homicide in 1996.
  • Johnson’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal by the Montana Supreme Court in 1998.
  • The United States Supreme Court denied review in 1999.
  • Johnson filed a state postconviction petition in December 1999. It is pending in state district court.

Ronald Allen Smith

  • Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of deliberate homicide and two counts of aggravated homicide and was sentenced to death.
  • In 1985, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed his original conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal in 1985. Review was denied by the United States Supreme Court in 1986.
  • In 1990, the Ninth Circuit vacated Smith’s death sentence and remanded for resentencing. On appeal of the re-imposition of the death sentence, the Montana Supreme Court reversed in 1993 and remanded for resentencing.
  • Smith’s second re-sentencing, in which the death penalty was imposed, was affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court on appeal in 1996. Review by the United States Supreme Court was denied in 1997.
  • Smith filed a state postconviction petition in 1998 and it was denied in 1999. The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief in 2000.
  • A federal habeas corpus petition regarding Smith’s sentence is pending in federal district court.

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