A Canadian man on death row in Montana State Prison says he believes he may get clemency now that lawmakers in the state legislature are voting next month on whether to end the death penalty.
"I'm figuring here in the next month, I won't have a death sentence anymore," Ronald Allen Smith told CBC News during an interview in the prison near Deer Lodge, Mt.
The 51-year-old man from Red Deer, Alta., is the only Canadian on death row in the U.S. He was convicted of killing two young aboriginal men while hitchhiking in Montana in 1982.
Capital punishment exists in 36 U.S. states, but several, including Montana, are now debating whether to end the practice.
In February, the Montana senate approved a bill that would abolish capital punishment. It's now being debated by state legislature representatives, who are expected to vote on the bill mid-April.
Smith says he's remorseful
In the interview, Smith told the CBC's Carolyn Dunn that he is a changed man and deserves to live.
"I realize — just through interactions with my own family — I realize what I've done to the families of the two victims," he said. "So, there's no doubt there's a lot of remorse. I'd give anything to be able go back and change that day. I can't."
On Aug. 4, 1982, Smith shot and killed 20-year-old Thomas Running Rabbit Jr. and 23-year-old Harvey Madman Jr. near Glacier National Park in Montana. He marched the two cousins into the woods by the highway and shot them both in the head with a sawed-off .22-calibre rifle.
Smith initially pleaded not guilty but withdrew his not-guilty pleas and pleaded guilty and asked to be executed. The court granted him a death sentence, but he later changed his mind and appealed the decision.
For years, the Canadian government lobbied for his clemency, but under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the government changed its mind.
"We will not actively pursue bringing back to Canada murderers who have been tried in a democratic country that supports the rule of law," then public safety minister Stockwell Day told the House of Commons in November 2007.
On March 4, a Federal Court ruled that the government couldn't suddenly change a policy without adequate explanation and ordered it to resume efforts to win Smith's clemency.
The Canadian government is reviewing the ruling to decide whether to appeal the decision. But that may be moot if Montana votes in favour of abolishing the death penalty. If that happens, Smith's sentence would be reduced to life imprisonment.
Execution would bring peace to one victim's family
Smith himself seemed conflicted about the possibility of being granted a reprieve.
"It's six-of-one, half-a-dozen of another because in all probability, it means I'll spend the rest of my life sitting in prison," said Smith, who hopes to be transferred to a Canadian prison to be closer to his family. "I'm not real pleased with that thought. So it's a little bit of a relief. But at the same time, I'm stuck here."
For the family of one victim, Smith's execution is the only thing that will bring peace.
"I wouldn't have to think about it every day," said Thomas Running Rabbit Sr. "Every day, I get up, I sit and drink a cup of coffee, and I look at my son's picture and … think about it … It's just like it happened yesterday. There's no change."