Ronald Smith, originally of Red Deer, Alta., committed two monstrous murders in Montana in 1982, when he was in his mid-20s, and asked for the death penalty. But the death penalty itself is monstrous, and 30 years later, the State of Montana should grant clemency to Mr. Smith not because he has changed, as he claims, but because the world has.
Capital punishment is gone from nearly all other Western democracies, and so the spectacle on display at the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole this week would have been unthinkable almost anywhere else in the West. One by one, family members of the murdered ones, denied closure for decades, advocated publicly for the death of the convicted killer, while on the other side the daughter of that killer, having spent her entire life in the shadow of that death penalty, begged for her father’s life to be spared.
This was degrading to Montana, not to the individuals involved; it degraded the justice system that invited them to put their pain and emotion at the service of a state with the power to kill, or in opposition to that power. To conscript suffering people into a decades-long fight over life and death is heartlessly cruel.
Montana, which has a low murder rate and is not a big death-penalty state, should look at the example set last week by Connecticut, the fifth state in five years to repeal the death penalty. Seventeen states are now abolitionist. The endless appeals are costly, the deterrent value is minimal, and the punishment consistently falls more harshly on blacks and the poor.
Capital punishment is recognized as wrong almost throughout the Western world because the state should support life’s sanctity; fighting murder by putting a human being to death in cold blood diminishes the sanctity of life. It is a violent society’s answer to violence. It adds to the sum of violence in that society.
“I’ve destroyed so many lives,” Mr. Smith told the CBC. “Not only the victims’ lives but the families of the victims and my family and my own life.” Clemency for Mr. Smith would end the cycle of destruction – a cycle that government should have no part in.
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