The fate of the only Canadian on death row in the United States may come down to two days in May, the time set aside by the Montana parole board to determine whether Alberta-born Ronald Smith should be spared the death penalty or executed for killing two young American men in 1982.
Smith, who has exhausted virtually all of his appeal options for avoiding a lethal dose of drugs for committing the crime, will have his chance at the May hearing to convince parole board members why he should be granted clemency and a new sentence of life imprisonment.
But those opposed to clemency for Smith, 54, will also get their chance to influence the board's recommendation, which will be sent to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer for a final decision — probably later this year.
Smith's long-running battle to avoid execution has been a source of fierce political debate in Canada. In October 2007, the Conservative government abruptly ordered a halt to all lobbying on Smith's behalf by Canadian diplomats in the U.S. after a Postmedia News story detailed the behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade Schweitzer to spare the Canadian killer's life.
The Conservative suspension of clemency efforts created an uproar at the time, with all opposition parties condemning the action as a betrayal of Canada's historic opposition to capital punishment.
Smith, represented by a team of Canadian human-rights lawyers, challenged the Conservative decision in the Federal Court of Canada and won a 2009 ruling in which the judge ordered federal officials to restart the campaign for clemency.
In December, just weeks ahead of Smith's formal request for clemency was filed, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird sent a letter to Montana's parole board conveying Canada's official view that Smith's death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment.
But the brief letter — which drew criticism from opposition critics and Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International's Canadian arm — emphasized that the Canadian government's support for clemency "should not be construed as reflecting a judgment on Smith's conduct."
The federal NDP's justice critic, Jack Harris, called it a "deplorable" indication of the Conservative government's ambiguous stance on capital punishment, and Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc said the "weak" and "cynical'' letter could effectively "sink" Smith's bid to avoid execution.
Opponents of the death penalty are certain to be monitoring the upcoming clemency hearing — to be held May 2-3 — to see whether Canadian officials attend and how forcefully they make the argument for Smith to be spared death.
Smith's principal lawyer in Montana, Greg Jackson, told Postmedia News on Thursday that Smith expects legal representatives to address the parole board on May 2. Then, on May 3, members of the public would be permitted to make presentations of no more than three minutes in support of or against clemency.
Smith has confessed to the August 1982 shooting deaths of Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man, two young cousins from Montana's Blackfeet Indian nation.
At the time of the murders, Smith acknowledged that he killed the 2 men — who had offered a ride to Smith and two hitchhiking friends from Canada — simply to steal their car.
Smith initially requested the death penalty for the crime and a judge promptly granted that wish, but the Canadian later launched a series of appeals that has delayed his execution for almost 3 decades.
Last week, Smith's daughter and sister spoke publicly about the case for the first time in interviews with Postmedia News.
They both described Smith as a "different person" today than the one who carried out the grisly double-murder almost 30 years ago.
Smith's daughter, when asked what she would say to the families of his two victims, said: "I would hope they would see it in their hearts to have forgiveness for him. I would hope they would see he has changed and he's very, very remorseful.''
The women's comments about Smith echoed the themes contained in his lawyers' 19-page application for clemency, delivered in January to state parole officials and setting the stage for Schweitzer's life-or-death decision.
The clemency request, accompanied by 2 lengthy letters of support from a Catholic priest and a retired prison educator, detailed Smith's record as a model inmate, the abusive childhood Smith suffered growing up Alberta and his "heartfelt remorse" over the killings of Mad Man and Running Rabbit.
(source: Vancouver Sun)