Players hope to avoid death penalty possibility

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Attorneys for two former Montana State University athletes accused of killing a suspected drug dealer want the state Supreme Court to prevent the prosecutor from seeking the death penalty.

Attorneys for former basketball player John Lebrum and former football player Branden Miller asked the Supreme Court to overturn a Gallatin County district judge's ruling that death is a possible punishment if the men are convicted, according to a 23-page petition filed with the high court last week.

Lebrum and Miller are in jail, awaiting trial on charges stemming from the killing of Jason Wright last summer.

"We're dealing with the issue of our clients' lives and whether or not they should live or die," said Al Avignone, Lebrum's attorney. "There is no more of an extraordinary issue. We felt compelled that we had to do this."

Lebrum and Miller are charged with murder, aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence for their alleged roles in the June 23 shooting death of Wright.

Defense attorneys argue that Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert should not be allowed to seek the death penalty because he failed to notify the court in writing of whether he intended to do so within 60 days of the defendants' arraignments.

Not filing the death-penalty paperwork violated Lebrum and Miller's due-process rights and prejudiced their cases, according to the petition.

But District Judge Mike Salvagni ruled that although Lambert didn't file paperwork on deadline, he did include death as a possible punishment when he filed charges against Lebrum and Miller.

The defendants were also told in court appearances that they could be sentenced to death, Salvagni ruled. And attorneys on both sides have referred to the alleged homicide as a capital case.

Lambert, who has not decided whether he will seek the death penalty in either or both cases, has since filed the death-penalty paperwork, although that could be withdrawn at a later date, he said.

Attorneys have until June 1 to file all of their motions related to the death penalty in District Court.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the death-penalty petition within weeks.

The body of Wright, 26, was found in a field off Huffine Lane in June. He died of gunshot wounds. He was suspected of being a cocaine dealer.