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The Globe and Mail

Foreign affairs minister sends letter asking clemency for death row Canadian

Convicted murderer Ronald Smith becomes emotional during his clemency hearing in Powell County District Court on Wednesday, May 2, 2012, in Deer Lodge, Mont.

Michael Gallacher/AP

The Canadian government has sent a letter to Montana's governor requesting that he spare the life of death row inmate Ronald Smith.

The Dec. 10 letter from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to Montana's outgoing Governor Brian Schweitzer is almost identical to one sent to the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole a year ago prior to the Alberta man's clemency hearing. It makes it clear that the Federal Court ordered the federal government to support Smith's case for clemency.

"The government of Canada requests that you grant clemency to Mr. Smith on humanitarian grounds," writes Mr. Baird. "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."

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Mr. Smith has been on death row since admitting he murdered Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Madman Jr. near East Glacier, Mont., in 1982.

The Harper government initially refused to back Mr. Smith's calls for clemency, saying he was convicted in a democratic country. But the Federal Court ruled Ottawa must follow a long-standing practice of lobbying on behalf of Canadians sentenced to death in other countries.

One of Mr. Smith's lawyers, Don Vernay, wasn't sure why the government sent the second letter to Schweitzer. No one in Mr. Baird's office was available for comment.

"They just wanted to, I guess, put their two cents in which didn't really say too much, did it? It's the same lukewarm letter," Mr. Vernay said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday.

"I guess they just want to go on the record because they're probably like everybody else wondering what's going on here? 'We should make sure we get on the record just to appease the masses in Canada who are against the death penalty.'" The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole recommended against granting clemency to Mr. Smith. The matter is now in the hands of Mr. Schweitzer, a two-term Democrat, who is to officially leave office in a matter of weeks.

Mr. Schweitzer hasn't commented since the clemency hearing, but earlier indicated he didn't want to leave a decision up to his successor. He did talk 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 from his office in Helena. "It feels like you're carrying more than the weight of an Angus bull on your shoulders."

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Mr. Vernay said he remains hopeful, but is disappointed that Mr. Schweitzer still hasn't met personally with Mr. Smith.

"I hope that he gets a chance to meet Mr. Smith before he does decide whether to uphold the recommendation of the board," Mr. Vernay said.

"We're a little disappointed that he hasn't met with our client. The Smith family came down here to meet with him. We'd all like to hear something one way or the other for everybody involved."

Mr. Smith, 55, and an accomplice were both high on drugs when they marched Running Rabbit and Mad Man Jr. into the woods and shot them in the head. It was a cold-blooded crime. They wanted to steal the men's car, but Mr. Smith also said he wanted to know what it was like to kill someone.

He had been taking 30 to 40 hits of LSD and consuming between 12 and 18 beers a day at the time. 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. He asked for and was given a death sentence.

Mr. Smith later had a change of heart and has since had a number of execution dates set and then put off.

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His execution remains in limbo because of a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union on the methods Montana uses to carry out its lethal injections.

A ruling by Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in September declared the state's executions unconstitutional and placed any future executions on hold. Mr. Sherlock is to hear arguments next year on whether the state can make changes to it protocols without going to the legislature for approval.

A three-day hearing has been scheduled starting July 22.

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