MONTANA – Ronald Smith makes his final bid to escape execution


April 27 sourcehttp://www.ottawacitizen.com

 

Albertan Ronald Smith is the only Canadian on death row in the U.S. He has finally exhausted his legal appeals to avoid execution for the 1982 murders of two men, but is seeking executive clemency. Ronald  Smith  is the only Canadian on death row in U.S

It happened along the highway that cuts through a picturesque mountain pass in northwest Montana, not far from the Canada-U.S. border south of Lethbridge, Alta., in a roadside stand of trees located almost exactly on the Continental Divide.

The place where 24-year-old Albertan Ronald Smith murdered two young Montana men in August 1982 was, looking back over nearly 30 years, a portentous setting: Smith’s cold-blooded killing of Blackfeet Indian cousins Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, and Harvey Mad Man, 23 — whose fatal mistake was kindly offering a lift to the drunk and drugged-up Canadian hitchhiker and his two friends from Red Deer, Alta. — has underscored North America’s deep continental divide over capital punishment, which is still in use throughout much of the United States but was abolished in Canada in 1976.

Now 54, Smith is the only Canadian on death row in the U.S. He has finally exhausted his legal appeals to avoid execution for his horrific crimes, but is seeking executive clemency — and a new sentence of life imprisonment — at a Montana parole board hearing to be held on Wednesday in Deer Lodge, a city in the Rocky Mountain foothills where the state’s maximum-security prison is situated.

The three-member parole panel — which will make its recommendation to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who ultimately decides Smith’s fate — will hear arguments from state justice officials, members of the victims’ families and others who believe Smith should, as originally sentenced three decades ago, be put to death by lethal injection in the prison’s execution chamber.

“This is the first time that we get to, as a family, sit in the judicial system to face the guy that murdered our boys,” Gabe Grant, uncle to both Running Rabbit and Mad Man, told Postmedia News this week. “We intend to go down there (to Deer Lodge) and be strong. We intend to be adamantly and unitedly joined in denying his clemency.”

The 62-year-old Grant, a housing administrator with the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Mont., said he will speak at the clemency hearing to describe how his nephews’ deaths were “devastating” for members of their large extended family and led to the “early deaths” of his two sisters — the mothers of Mad Man and Running Rabbit.

“It drove them to break down. They were seemingly normal people back then. But when this happened, it completely devastated their lives,” he recalled.

“We used to do all kinds of family things — the sisters and brothers. Our mother was the hub of our family, Cecile, and when this happened, it put a screeching halt to family activities because of the impact of what happened. We eventually recovered to a certain point, but never to the fullest extent of the good times that were enjoyed prior to that.”

Montana state attorneys will lean heavily on the family’s anguish in arguing to parole officials that Smith does not deserve clemency.

The Alberta-born killer “remorselessly took the lives” of two cousins, Montana’s justice department states in its written submission to the clemency panel, obtained this week by Postmedia News.

Running Rabbit and Mad Man “were loved by countless family members and friends,” the document states, noting how the victims’ “loved ones have suffered the pain and agony of their deaths for over a quarter of a century, a pain that never ends. They can never be replaced.”

Smith confessed to the gunshot murders of the two men. And he initially asked for the death penalty before changing his mind and launching what became a decades-long legal struggle to avoid execution for a crime he claimed was carried out in a haze of drug- and alcohol-fuelled “foolishness.”

Smith’s legal team — including Montana-based defence attorney Greg Jackson and Texas human rights lawyer Don Vernay — will argue that the Canadian inmate is a model prisoner and a transformed human being, a man so filled with regret and remorse over his murderous actions 30 years ago that the state should give Smith what he so brutally denied Mad Man and Running Rabbit: a chance to keep living.

“We would never, ever question the horrendous nature of the crime and the horrendous impact it had on the community,” Jackson said Friday. But echoing several points made in the 19-page clemency application he filed on Smith’s behalf in January, Jackson highlighted the “tremendous growth and rehabilitation” and “exemplary behaviour” the Canadian inmate has exhibited during his incarceration, as well as “the remorse and repentance” he has shown.

“He’s a changed man,” the lawyer said.

Others will address the hearing, possibly Smith’s daughter and sister — both of whom recently told Postmedia News that they’ve nurtured close relationships with Smith despite his long incarceration — as well as advocates on both sides of what has become a lively death-penalty debate in Montana and the broader United States.

But conspicuously silent during the proceedings will be the Canadian government, which recently — and only reluctantly — sent a letter to Montana officials seeking clemency for Smith.

The letter, signed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, stated that while the Canadian government “does not sympathize with violent crime,” it is seeking clemency for Smith “on humanitarian grounds.”

Baird’s letter also noted that the government’s backing of the clemency bid “should not be construed as reflecting a judgment on Mr. Smith’s conduct,” and stipulated that his department was, in fact, “ordered” by the Federal Court of Canada in 2009 “to support Mr. Smith’s case for clemency.”

In effect, the Conservative government has made clear that if its court-forced request to spare Smith’s life is ignored by Montana officials, it won’t be terribly miffed.

“Ultimately, decisions regarding Mr. Smith’s case lie with the relevant U.S. authorities,” a Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Postmedia News earlier this month. “Mr. Smith pleaded guilty and was subsequently convicted of murdering two people. These were admitted crimes.”

Jackson called the Canadian government’s grudging, quasi-backing of Smith “a tremendous disappointment,” adding: “The statement they’ve made (in the letter) is the statement we’re stuck with.”

Opposition critics have condemned the government’s lukewarm efforts in support of Smith’s clemency bid as a “deplorable” indication of the Conservative party’s ambiguous stance on capital punishment and as a “cynical” strategy that could, in fact, “sink” Smith’s petition to avoid execution.

Nevertheless, obtaining even Canada’s nominal endorsement for the clemency initiative was a significant achievement for Smith’s legal team after the Conservative government’s previous decision, in October 2007, to halt diplomatic efforts to prevent Smith’s execution.

That move was prompted by a Postmedia News story that detailed fresh efforts by Canadian diplomats to convince Schweitzer to commute Smith’s sentence and transfer him to a prison in Canada.

At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government’s decision to abandon Smith was driven by concerns that lobbying for the killer’s life would “send the wrong signal” to Canadians about violent crime.

“We have no desire to open the debate on capital punishment here in Canada — and likewise, we have no desire to participate in the debate on capital punishment in the United States,” Harper stated at the time. “The reality of this particular case is that were we to intervene, it would very quickly become a question of whether we are prepared to repatriate a double-murderer to Canada. In light of this government’s strong initiatives on tackling violent crime, I think that would sent the wrong signal to the Canadian population.”

But the Federal Court ruling in a lawsuit later launched by Smith’s legal team said the government’s withdrawal of support for clemency was “unlawful.” The decision compelled Canadian officials to restart talks with Montana — and eventually forced Baird’s hand in the December letter that officially, if not insistently, asked the state not to put Smith to death.

Grant acknowledged that critics of capital punishment have a point when they say innocent people are sometimes executed in the United States.

“It’s not that in this case,” he said. “Ronald Smith, right from the get-go, said ‘I did it.’ He boasted about it. He jumped up and down and said, ‘Take me — give me the death penalty.’ So it’s not a case of executing somebody innocent.

“He was not remorseful then. I don’t believe he’s ever been.”

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