A Canadian on death row in Montana for killing two men 30 years ago was dealt a major blow Monday in his bid to avoid execution.
The Montana Board of Pardons and Paroles is recommending against allowing Ronald Smith to live out the rest of his life at the state prison — despite an emotional apology from Mr. Smith at his clemency hearing earlier this month.
“It’s not a surprise at all. Even though they made a big to-do about it, this report just shows the way the state of Montana has been all along,” Mr. Smith’s longtime lawyer Don Vernay said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.
“It’s always been they’re going to kill this guy because for them to do an investigation in the manner they did shows they don’t care.”
A report done by staff at the board, obtained prior to the clemency hearing, strongly recommended against granting Mr. Smith mercy.
Mr. Vernay said the board obviously didn’t want to rock the boat.
“It’s the easy route. It’s just going with the flow and it flies in the face of all the prison officials that testified and wrote letters for him,” he said.
“It’s just ridiculous when prison guards come up and say they sought this guy out to say goodbye when they retired. These people like him. I’ve never seen anything like it. If there is a case for clemency it is this one.
“The guy really has changed. You can’t fake it for 30 years.”
Mr. Smith had asked the board to recommend his death sentence be commuted, but the board ruled that he did not meet the conditions necessary for clemency.
The recommendation is not binding. It is now up to Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to decide if Mr. Smith lives or dies.
“All we can do is hope, obviously. It is mind-boggling to me that they did not recommend clemency given what we put on at that hearing,” Mr. Vernay said.
“We just hope the governor is more open-minded than the rest of the state of Montana.”
Mr. Schweitzer talked about death penalty cases in an interview with The Canadian Press last year.
“You’re not talking to a governor who is jubilant about these things,” he said at the time from his office in Helena. “It feels like you’re carrying more than the weight of an Angus bull on your shoulders.”
Mr. Smith, 54, has been on death row ever since he admitted to shooting Thomas Mad Man Jr. and Harvey Running Rabbit near East Glacier, Mont., in 1982. He originally asked for the death penalty, but soon after changed his mind and has been fighting for his life ever since.
Originally from Red Deer, Alta., Mr. Smith was 24 and had been taking LSD and drinking when he and Rodney Munro marched the two men into the woods where Mr. Munro stabbed one of them and Mr. Smith shot them both in the head.
Mr. Munro accepted a plea deal, was eventually transferred to a Canadian prison and has completed his sentence.
Mr. Smith told the clemency hearing that he was “horrendously sorry” for his actions.
“I do understand the pain and suffering I’ve put you through,” he said to the families of the victims. “It was never my intent to cause any suffering for anybody. I wish there was some way I could take it back. I can’t.”
“All I can do is hope to move forward with my life and become a better person.”
But one by one members of the Mad Man and Running Rabbit families demanded that Mr. Smith be executed for his crimes.
Thomas Running Rabbit, son of one of the victims, said he would seek justice for the father he never knew until “Ronald Smith’s last breath.”
“The decisions he made he has to pay for,” Mr. Running Rabbit told the hearing. “He had no mercy for my father.”
A cousin, Camille Wells, called Smith “an animal.”
“He is the scum of the earth and I will hate him until the day I die.”
Even if Mr. Schweitzer denies clemency, there is one more factor in the case.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil lawsuit on Mr. Smith’s behalf in 2008 that argues Montana’s executions amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
The next court date in the lawsuit is scheduled for September.
An official with the group, Ron Waterman, told The Canadian Press earlier this year that the lawsuit and the clemency hearing were “parallel proceedings” and the application for clemency was not a factor in the civil suit.
Mr. Waterman said the lawsuit has stalled while Montana attempts to upgrade the trailer where state executions take place.