The daughter of Ronald Smith, one of two Canadians on death row in the United States, sees a small glimmer of hope that her father's life will be spared after her family met with Montana's governor earlier this month.
"I don't want to get my hopes up too high, but at least I know whatever decision comes down it's going to be a fair one. It's going to be from [the governor's] heart," said a tearful Carmen Blackburn in an interview with The Canadian Press. "It's not going to be just something off the cuff."
Blackburn and her family had a one-hour audience with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer at his office in Helena in which they pleaded for Smith's life. Smith had a clemency hearing earlier this year and the panel recommended it be denied. The final decision, however, rests with the governor.
Schweitzer's term in office runs out early next year. Smith and his friend Rodney Munro, both Canadians, were hitchhiking in Montana in 1982 when they caught a ride with Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit, both members of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.
Drunk and high on drugs, the Canadian men marched Madman and Running Rabbit into the woods and shot and stabbed them to death. Smith, originally from Red Deer, Alta., rejected a plea deal and asked for the death penalty before later changing his mind. Munro pleaded guilty to aggravated kidnapping and was returned to Canada and released from jail in 1998.
Blackburn says Schweitzer told Smith's family that he was undecided, but didn't think it was fair for Smith to be executed when Munro was paroled and free to live his life in Canada.
He also indicated Smith may be a different man.
"He was jotting notes while we were talking. I couldn't read all of them — there was just the one I could read very well and that was the word fair," said Blackburn. "You could see that word fair — his eyes kept going back to it and going back to it and he's really struggling with this. He is a man who is going to do what he wants, what he feels is right. I don't think anyone could force him one way or another."
Credits Smith with saving his life
In an interview with The Canadian Press last month, Munro broke 30 years of silence and credited Smith with saving his life. He said he was given a plea deal and allowed to come home because Smith admitted to the murders.
Although the state attorney downplayed Munro's role in the killings during Smith's clemency hearing, Munro said he was equally to blame.
"When you're involved in what we were involved in, how can you not feel it? We put ourselves in a spot and two guys ended up dead and I think about it all the time,'' Munro said. "They don't want to know [about my role]. That just brings up that he's not the monster."
The family members of the victims were adamant at the clemency hearing that they won't be satisfied until Smith is put to death. "The decisions he made he has to pay for,'' Thomas Running Rabbit told Smith's clemency hearing. "He had no mercy for my father — a person I have never met.''
An uncle told the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole that 30 years was too long to wait for justice. William Talks About said the victims' mothers never got to see justice done before they died.
"Ronald Smith needs to be executed,'' said Talks About. "Thirty years is too long.''
Schweitzer, a Democrat, has said he sympathizes with the victims' families but was unsure whether Smith's death would improve the situation.
He also said he's not sure the traditional form of justice for the Blackfeet people would include the death penalty. "In their system of justice, when people did something very bad, they were banished," Schweitzer said.
Blackburn said Schweitzer has indicated he would be interested in speaking with Smith before coming to a final decision.
"He did say he wouldn't mind meeting with my dad. It's one thing to hear about the remorse but when you hear it in my dad's voice and you see it in my dad's eyes — that's the difference," she said. "You can't fake remorse because your true colours always show through. You can see how much he regrets what he's done and wishes he could turn time back."