DEER LODGE, Mont. – The family of the only Canadian on death row in the United States tearfully pleaded with the Montana Parole Board on Wednesday to give him clemency, saying he has changed and deserves to live. Equally emotional relatives of two Blackfeet cousins killed by Ronald A. Smith argued the "scum of the earth" criminal should be put to death.
The case pits Blackfeet tribal members from both sides of the border who want the death sentence upheld against a Canadian government that is asking Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who ultimately makes the decision, to spare Smith's life.
Smith, of Red Deer, Alberta, is asking board members to recommend that Schweitzer commute his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His lawyers say the board should look beyond the horrific 1983 killings of Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, and consider that Smith is now a different person.
Prosecutors and victims counter that the original sentence has stood through several appeals for good reason: Smith orchestrated a premeditated double murder during an international crime spree that stretched to California.
Board chairman Michael McKee said the decision will hinge on whether the board members conclude that Smith's rehabilitation and remorse is genuine.
Relatives of the victims said the killings have forever scarred their family, and the case continues to cause anxiety as it drags on. Running Rabbit's son, born just months before the killing, said he was shown a gravestone when he was old enough to ask who his dad was.
"At a young age I realized what kind of people are in this world, what kind of hatreds and injustice we have to deal with," said Thomas William Running Rabbit IV. "How does a child deal with that?"
An aunt, Camille Wells, said Smith is an "animal" who "does not deserve to breathe the same air."
Smith was sentenced just seven months after he marched the two young men into the woods just off U.S. 2 near Marias Pass and shot them both in the head with a .22-caliber rifle in an alcohol- and drug-fueled episode.
Smith was 24 and said at the time he wanted to know what it was like to kill. On Wednesday, he said he made that statement only to force the death sentence he was requesting at that time out of depression.
Smith spurned a plea deal that would have spared his life. His co-defendant has since been paroled and is living in Canada, while Smith resides in the maximum-security portion of the Montana State Prison, where he gets one hour outside his cell each day.
Smith turned to a dozen or so relatives of his victims and apologized.
"I wish in some way I could take it back. I can't. All I can do is go forward with my life and be a better person," Smith said. "I am just horrendously sorry. All I can do is apologize. I am not asking for forgiveness. I am not asking for understanding."
He said he understands the desire of the victims' family to see him executed.
"They have every right to feel that way, and I don't blame them in the least," he said.
Advocates and family members portrayed Smith as a thoughtful man who provides a needed sense of calm at the prison, and one who remains very engaged with letters and phone calls to his sister, daughter, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
His sister, Rita Duncan, asked the parole board to let him live out his days in prison, where he has educated himself and proven to be a helpful inmate.
"If this was your son, your brother, your father, your grandfather, your uncle, who was in this predicament, wouldn't you want grace and mercy shown to him when he has done everything in his power to change and become the man he is today?" Duncan said.
Prosecutors argued Smith's crime was premeditated, pointing out he sawed off the rifle in Canada and sneaked it across the border with the stated intent to use it in a crime.
Afterward, Smith was sober enough to drive out of the state, stopping to put stolen license plates on the car taken from the victims before robbing a convenience store in California with the same rifle.
Prosecutors also argued Smith was the ringleader in the crimes, and noted he overpowered a Montana jail guard in a successful escape shortly before his trial.
"Today he could be called an international terrorist. He used the weapon to kill two Americans less than 24 hours after illegally entering the country," former Flathead County Attorney Tom Esh said.
Smith's request comes just a week after the board quickly and sternly rejected a parole request from another high-profile inmate, Don Nichols. The aging "mountain man" is serving an 85-year sentence for abducting a world-class athlete in the 1980s with the intent of making her his son's wife.
A Smith supporter argued the board sent a strong message in the Nichols case that inmates who show no remorse with their behavior do not deserve leniency. Helena attorney Ron Waterman said the board should grant clemency to Smith for the same reason — to show other inmates that good behavior matters.
"When you do, and if you do, you will send a message to those incarcerated that their conduct can improve their situation — that good conduct can lead to good results," said Waterman, who is also a lead attorney in a separate case challenging the state's lethal injection protocol.
Schweitzer has told the victims' families that he will think of them and their desire to see the death penalty carried out, in making any decision. He also has said he does not take lightly any decision to execute a man.
The Canadian government, which does not believe in capital punishment, initially refused to support Smith, saying he had been convicted in a democratic country. It now formally supports clemency for Smith, in accordance with a long-standing policy of seeking clemency for Canadians sentenced to death in foreign lands.
Smith's support included a letter read into the record from the Canadian government supporting clemency.
The board said it expects to issue its findings in three weeks, although there is no time limit for a final decision from Schweitzer, who leaves office at year's end.