Clemency for Canadian on death row agonizes U.S. governor

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who will decide whether Ronald Smith is executed, says he sympathizes with the Alberta native but also has been told by the victims' families that they need the convicted murderer's death for closure.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer observes a forest fire in a flyover last month. Schweitzer has a lofty decision to make: whether to spare the life of death-row inmate Ronald Smith of Red Deer, Alta. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Bozeman Daily Chronicle/AP)

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Friday told the family of a Canadian on death row that he is undecided on the inmate's request for executive clemency, at times expressing sympathy for his plight and at other times noting the desire of the victims' families for retribution.

Ronald Smith, seen at his clemency hearing in May, killed two men 30 years ago to steal their car. He has been on death row ever since. (Michael Gallacher/The Missoulian/AP)

The governor had a long, frank discussion with relatives of convicted murderer Ronald A. Smith. Schweitzer told them that his options include doing nothing with the clemency request, which seeks life in prison without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty.

Schweitzer sympathized with the plight of Smith, who is scheduled to be executed in the 1982 killings of two Blackfeet aboriginal men. The governor said it is not fair for Smith to be executed after an accomplice was paroled, and indicated he believes that Smith may be a different man.

But the governor said he has spoken with the victims' families, members of the Blackfeet nation, who have told him they need Smith's death for closure. The governor said he remains uncertain whether Smith's death would improve the situation, and said he is not sure the traditional form of justice for the Blackfeet would include the death penalty.

"In their system of justice, when people did something very bad, they were banished," Schweitzer said.

A tribal council member has said that many in the tribe believe that if the governor gives clemency to Smith that means the governor values Native American lives less.

Schweitzer told Smith's family, from Red Deer, Alta., that he is aware of that criticism, but argued it does not have merit because he believes he has done more than past governors to include Montana's largest minority group in his administration.

Still, the governor is weighing the desire of those on the reservation.

"They cannot rest until there is retribution and Ron's life is taken. They told us that," Schweitzer said.

No schedule for decision

Members of the Blackfeet nation and family of the victims told the Montana Parole Board earlier this year that the execution has been postponed for too long and say it is time for Smith to pay for his crimes.

The board is recommending that Schweitzer dismiss the clemency request, writing in their report that "justice is best served" by continuing with the execution. The governor makes the final call.

He does not have a timetable for making a decision, but noted the best-case scenario for Smith is life behind bars.

Smith's saga has brought intense criticism on the Canadian government, which in the past routinely requested clemency for its citizens on death row in the U.S. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives opted to repudiate that policy starting with Smith's case, prompting a legal challenge that resulted in the Federal Court ruling the government had to follow its long-standing practice and formally plead for clemency for the Alberta native.

Smith and accomplice Rodney Munro were hitchhiking when they killed Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, in 1982. Smith, 24 at the time, and Munro marched the two men into the woods just off U.S. Highway 2 and shot them both in the head with a .22-calibre rifle. He says he was out of his mind on drugs and alcohol.

Smith is one of two Canadians on death row in the United States.