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Lawyers preparing clemency bid for Canadian on death-row

In this June 30, 2008 photo, Ronald Smith, the only Canadian on death row in the United States talks about spending the last 25 years trying to avoid the death penalty for two 1982 murders. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland


Lawyers for the only Canadian on death row in the United States expect to file a clemency application for their client by the end of the year.

Ronald Smith, who is originally from Red Deer, Alta., has faced the death penalty in Montana for nearly 30 years. He was convicted in 1983 for shooting two cousins, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit, while he was high on drugs and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont.

Mr. Smith, 54, had been taking 30 to 40 hits of LSD and consuming between 12 and 18 beers a day at the time of the murders. He refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row and spend the rest of his life in prison. Three weeks later, he pleaded guilty, then asked for and was given a death sentence.

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He later had a change of heart and has been on a legal roller-coaster for the last 25 years. An execution date has been set five times and each time the order was overturned.

A civil lawsuit filed on Mr. Smith's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that Montana's use of lethal injection is unconstitutionally cruel, is still pending and has stalled a new execution date. But one of Mr. Smith's lawyers says it's time to bid for clemency anyway.

"The most important thing of all is Ron wants it over with one way or the other. He's been there for 30 years and he wants it over," Don Vernay, who works out of Albuquerque, N.M., and is a co-counsel for Smith, told The Canadian Press.

"That's also something that we're factoring in. It's time to do it," he said.

"We've exhausted our appeals, so it's just a question of putting things together, interviewing people and ... in the next couple of months we'll be doing something.

"I would hope to get an application in before the end of the year."

But a clemency hearing probably wouldn't be held until some time next spring. That's just months before Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is in his second and final term of office and has nothing to lose politically, is scheduled to step down.

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The clemency board, after hearing the arguments from Smith's lawyers, would make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.

"You never know how it's going to turn out," Mr. Vernay said. "In Montana, even Democrats are fairly conservative so he has signed off on one execution already. He does believe in the death penalty."

Mr. Vernay said he and co-counsel Greg Jackson have been with Mr. Smith for 20 years and have developed an emotional bond.

"He's a decent guy but he made a horrific mistake and we've been trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube for the last 30 years."

But Mr. Vernay is aware of the challenges of persuading a clemency board to recommend mercy.

"It's difficult for us to go out to the world and say this guy who killed two innocent young men is a decent human being. He's highly intelligent and he's remorseful."

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Even though the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Mr. Smith, there was a silver lining from the judges.

"By all accounts, Mr. Smith has reformed his life. He has developed strong relationships with various members of his family and has taken advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the prison that houses him. He has expressed deep regret for his deplorable actions," wrote Judge Charles Lovell.

"However, consideration of these issues are beyond our jurisdiction in this case. Clemency claims are committed to the wisdom of the executive branch."

A Canadian court has already ruled that the federal government must pursue clemency for Mr. Smith.

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