The man who could hold in his hands the life of the only Canadian on death row in the United States says the Harper government's plea for clemency will have only a limited influence on him.
Double-murderer Ronald Smith is down to the final appeal of his death sentence in Montana. A decision is expected this month from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether it will review the Alberta man's case. His lawyer is not optimistic about the outcome.
If the court refuses to grant a review, the matter will go back to a Montana court to set an execution date. That means Mr. Smith's last hope would be Brian Schweitzer, the state's Democratic governor.
Canadian courts forced Stephen Harper's government to seek clemency for Mr. Smith last year after Ottawa initially balked at stepping in. Mr. Schweitzer says Canada's consul general, Dale Eisler, met with the governor to make the request in June.
But in an interview with The Canadian Press this past week, Mr. Schweitzer suggested he is still undecided on what he will do.
“Yes, it carries weight. I mean we're neighbours,” he said. “But I've met with the families of the ones who were murdered because I wanted to hear what they had to say.
“In some other cases I've met with families who have said to me we just want this to be over with. We don't care what happens to him — whether he lives or dies.
“That isn't what I heard from the families of these kids. They want what they consider to be justice.”
Mr. Smith, 52, was convicted in 1983 for shooting to death two cousins, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit, while he was high on drugs and alcohol.
He refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row but spend his life in prison. Three weeks later, he pleaded guilty. He asked for and was given a death sentence.
But he later had a change of heart and has been on a legal roller coaster for the last 25 years. He has been sentenced to death four times and had the order overturned on three occasions.
Being the last resort for Mr. Smith is not something Mr. Schweitzer relishes.
“You're not talking to a governor who is jubilant about these things,” he said from his office in Helena. “It feels like you're carrying more than the weight of an Angus bull on your shoulders.”
Mr. Schweitzer said it is clear that Mr. Smith was “a troubled young man” when he committed the murders, but he showed himself to be a “cold-blooded killer” when he told the jury that he simply wanted to know what it was like to kill somebody.
“The jury said if there was ever a case for a death penalty in Montana this would be it,” Mr. Schweitzer recalled.
He supports the death penalty, but says it would still be a difficult decision for him.
“Anybody who says they are absolutely sure about the death penalty is either in denial themselves or has not been paying attention. I'm not absolutely sure about the death penalty,” he said.
“There are very few people on the planet that have had that kind of experience. For almost everybody else it is a philosophical test because they'll never actually be in a position where they're involved in any way.”
The last execution in Montana was Aug. 11, 2006. David Dawson, who had murdered three members of a family in a Billings hotel room, fired his lawyers and refused any more appeals. Mr. Schweitzer had only been in office about 18 months then.
“There were several calls to make sure the lines were open and then one last call at 11:56 (p.m.) to say everything is prepared at this end. The capital's a very dark place at midnight. There's nobody else there,” remembered Mr. Schweitzer.
“I'm there by myself. It's very quiet and the length of time from midnight until the phone rings again — while it will only be somewhere around four minutes — it could just as well be an eternity when they call to say it is done.”