Emotions are expected to run high in Montana Wednesday as the only Canadian on death row in the United States pleads for his life at a clemency hearing.
Ronald Smith, 54, shot and killed two young Montana men 30 years ago while he was high on drugs and alcohol.
After decades of appeals, he has one last chance to make a case before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole as to why he should not be executed. Once the parole board delivers its recommendation, Mr. Smith’s fate will ultimately end up in the hands of Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat whose term in office will run out in November.
“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 finished one way or the other,” Mr. Smith said in March in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“It’s time. It would be nice to keep it going for my family’s sake, but once the decision is made – and if it goes against me – it’s over. There’s nothing else to it.”
Mr. Smith, originally from Red Deer, Alta., has been on death row since 1982 after he and an accomplice murdered Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man Jr. near East Glacier, Mont.
Mr. Smith was 24 and had been taking LSD and drinking. 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.
It was a cold-blooded crime. They wanted to steal the men’s car, but Mr. Smith also said at the time he wanted to know what it was like to kill someone.
“I’d like to be able to take it back. I can’t but I wish I could,” he said in March.
Mr. Smith pleaded guilty to two charges of deliberate homicide and two charges of aggravated kidnapping in February 1983 and requested the death penalty. He rejected a plea deal offered by prosecutors which would have given him life in prison.
He later changed his mind and asked the District Court to reconsider the death penalty. That has led to three decades of legal wrangling.
Mr. Smith’s lawyers say he is a changed man.
“In the face of the harsh circumstances of being locked down in virtual isolation for 28 years, he has nonetheless made a genuine attempt to live a life that exhibits remorse, rehabilitation, a changed heart and mind and a potential for good,” reads a document prepared by lawyers Greg Jackson and Don Vernay.
“I made the decision that I wanted to change and I was able to do that,” said Mr. Smith.
“If you want to take a look at the overall picture, look at the crimes but look at what I’ve done since.”
The hearing is to be held at the courthouse in Deer Lodge, about 10 kilometres from Montana State Prison where Mr. Smith has spent the last 30 years.
One of the witnesses speaking on his behalf is his daughter Carmen Blackburn, who says her father has become a good man.
“I’m nervous. I’m very nervous. If this doesn’t go in our favour and if I lose him ... it’s one thing for a parent to die naturally, but to me they would be taking him. And even though what he’s done is wrong, taking him is not right. My family ... I don’t know if they’d ever recover from this.”
Almost 40 witnesses, including Mr. Smith himself, are expected to testify. Many relatives of Mr. Running Rabbit and Mr. Mad Man Jr. have made the journey to ask that Mr. Smith be put to death.
Mr. Jackson admits he’s a bit nervous.
“You know I’ve been with Ron for 30 years and you can’t help but worry. It’s obviously a life-and-death situation, so it’s one of those things that weighs heavily on me.
“As I’ve often said, Ron and I grew up together.”