With the clock ticking down toward a decision on whether he lives or dies, the only Canadian on death row in the United States is expressing regret and sadness for the crimes he committed and the situation he finds himself in.
But Ronald Smith is also angry at the Canadian government for its “tepid” support of his clemency bid — support that came only after Federal Court forced Ottawa to act on Mr. Smith's behalf.
“It bothered me,” Mr. Smith said in an interview with The Canadian Press at Montana State Prison — his home for the last 30 years.
“There was no need to make it a point that: ‘We're being forced into this.’ Come on, really? Am I that horrible a person that you have to be forced to act like a human being?
“I was a little grumpy about it.”
Mr. Smith, originally from Red Deer, Alta., has been on death row since 1982. A drug-addicted drifter back then, Mr. Smith and an accomplice, both of them high on LSD and booze, marched Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man Jr. into the woods near East Glacier, Mont., and shot them in the head.
They were cold-blooded killings. Mr. Smith said he shot the men just to know how it felt to take a life and because he wanted to steal their car.
Mr. Smith asked for and received a death sentence, but later changed his mind. His legal avenues of appeal have all run out and the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole has scheduled a hearing in May after which it will make a recommendation on whether Mr. Smith should be spared. The final decision will fall to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The governor indicated last fall there is nothing more difficult than deciding if someone lives or dies.
But he said Wednesday that he is going to let the parole board do its job.
“The parole board is first stop shopping for someone who is asking for clemency. They will make that first decision whether to make a recommendation to the governor or not,” Mr. Schweitzer said.
“It would be inappropriate for me to say anything or allow someone to write something about what this semi-judiciary board will be recommending.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government initially refused to support Mr. Smith, saying he had been convicted in a democratic country. The decision ran counter to a long-standing policy of seeking clemency for Canadians sentenced to death in foreign lands. The Federal Court ruled the government had to back Mr. Smith.
The government did write a letter asking the board to spare Mr. Smith's life, but its public support for the bid has been minimal.
“The government of Canada does not sympathize with violent crime and this letter should not be construed as reflecting a judgment on Mr. Smith's conduct,” the letter said. “The government of Canada ... requests that you grant clemency to Mr. Smith on humanitarian grounds.”
The letter was signed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
“I feel a little bit of both (anger and hurt),” Mr. Smith said. “They don't know me. They're taking a look at what happened to me all that time ago. They're not taking a look at anything else.
“I don't think it will hurt, but it's not going to be a benefit obviously.”
If Mr. Smith does win clemency, he will still spend the rest of his life behind bars.
He realizes that he is likely to die in Montana State Prison. The only remaining questions are when and how.
He said the support of his family — he has a daughter and two grandchildren — has helped him through his time on death row.
And he realizes that he took two men away from their own loved ones.
“I've always wanted an opportunity to step outside of all of this, and to be able to apologize to the family and explain to them just everything about me at that point in time. I was a completely different person,” Mr. Smith said.
“I'm not looking for forgiveness. I don't think that is a possibility. I can see what it did to my family, so it's got to be considerably more to them because I'm still here. I've taken that away from them so again I try not to dwell on it.”
Mr. Smith said he has turned to education to fill the long empty days.
He achieved his Grade 12 equivalency and had hoped to help troubled youth but realized that no one would trust him with their children. So he recently turned his studies to the law in order to give legal advice to others behind bars.
Officials at the prison said he has been a model prisoner for the past 25 years.
If Mr. Smith's bid for clemency fails, another execution date will be scheduled and there won't be any last-minute appeals that can rescue him from a lethal injection.
“I never did fear it. You've got to remember I'm the one that asked for this. The fear of dying — there's never been an issue with it. It is what it is. We all have to go at some time,” Mr. Smith said.
“It's got to be over. Thankfully we've hit this point in time where there's no more long, drawn-out waiting. We're going to get it over one way or another. It's like triple overtime.”
However his lack of fear about death doesn't mean he believes he will be going to a better place.
“I've gotten into religious discussions here recently with a priest trying to help me a develop a faith. The problem: I don't have the faith,” he said.
“It's hard for me to think that there is some benign being out there watching over me and just waiting for me to accept him and he'll pick me up with open arms and away we go,” he added.
“I would like to believe, but it comes down to developing that faith aspect.”
Family members of Mr. Smith's victims said in the past that they wanted to see him executed, but that feeling has subsided among at least one relative recently.
Jessica Crawford, Running Rabbit's daughter, said before Christmas that she will ask the board to recommend clemency. She said before seeing Mr. Smith in person at a hearing she had built him into some kind of monster, but she then realized he is just a man.
Mr. Smith said he isn't about to minimize what he did.
“She was about the same age as my daughter when this all fell out. From a child's perspective I was some kind of monster. I'm not saying that I wasn't ... I killed people.
“I was a monster at the time. It's not who I am now.”