HELENA, Mont. – The Montana Parole Board on Monday recommended that a Canadian man on death row be denied clemency, saying "justice is best served" by continuing with the execution.
Ronald A. Smith's case now goes to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who could either grant or deny him clemency or make no decision at all before leaving office at year's end. Smith is seeking life in prison without the possibility of parole — instead of the death sentence he now faces.
Smith is believed to be one of only two Canadians on death row in the United States.
He argues his original 1983 trial for shooting two Blackfeet cousins — in which he asked for and received the death penalty — was botched. His attorneys also have argued it is fundamentally unfair that Smith, of Red Deer, Alberta, be killed while an accomplice was long ago released on parole and returned to Canada.
The Montana Parole Board earlier this month heard testimony for a full day, with Smith's family tearfully pleading for his life. But Blackfeet tribal members and family of the victims argued the execution has been postponed for too long and say it is time for Smith to pay for his crimes.
The Canadian government, after some internal policy changes, is again asking Schweitzer to spare Smith's life.
Smith's lawyers say the governor should look beyond the horrific 1982 killings of Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, and consider that Smith is now a different person. They are hoping Schweitzer will take an objective look at the matter since he leaves office at year's end and won't be running again due to term limits.
"The level and intensity of emotional testimony from both members of Mr. Smith's family and the extended family and friends of his victims, Mr. Madman Jr. and Mr. Running Rabbit Jr., was unprecedented in the experience of the board," the board wrote in a letter to the governor. "Whatever final decision is made by you in this matter will result in continued grief and anguish for some, albeit solely as a result of Mr. Smith's actions."
It's unclear what, if any, action Schweitzer will take. There is no time limit for a final decision from the governor — and state law does not require him to make a decision before leaving office. That could leave the matter to his successor.
In a past meeting with victims of the family, Schweitzer said he will think of them and their desire to see the death penalty carried out in making any decision. But he also has said he does not take lightly any decision to execute a man.
"Governor Schweitzer respects the process for capital cases. The governor will review the record of the hearing and the board's recommendation," Schweitzer spokeswoman Sarah Elliott said.
Regardless, Smith's execution will have to wait until courts clear up a separate legal challenge to the state's method of execution.
At the board hearing earlier this month, prosecutors and victims said the original sentence has stood through several appeals for good reason: Smith committed a premeditated double murder during an international crime spree that stretched to California.
The family of Mad Man and Running Rabbit said Smith's crime and lack of remorse at trial have forever scarred them.
Board Chairman Michael McKee has said the board's decision will hinge on whether its members conclude Smith's rehabilitation and remorse are genuine.
Smith and his supporters told the board he has become a valuable member of the prison community where he has educated himself and helped others. They said Smith has reconnected with his family in important ways, and argued his life has value.
Smith was 24 years old when 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. He says he was out of his mind on drugs and alcohol.
He told prosecutors at the time that he wanted to know what it was like to kill. But he later said the statements were fabricated to convince the judge to give him the death penalty. Smith even rejected a plea deal at the time that would have spared his life.
At the parole board hearing earlier this month, Smith told the victims' families that he was "horrendously sorry."
"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, adding he understands why they want to see him dead.
Smith was long thought to be the only Canadian facing execution in the U.S., but a link to Canada recently emerged in another case.
Court records show Robert Bolden, on death row for killing a bank security guard in Missouri, has Canadian citizenship, the Canadian Press has reported. Bolden was born to a Canadian woman in Newfoundland and moved to the U.S. when he was young.
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 him, in accordance with a long-standing policy of seeking clemency for Canadians sentenced to death in foreign lands.