Only Canadian on U.S. death row confident in clemency request

Ronald Allen Smith speaks at the Montana State Prison

The only Canadian on death row in the United States is making one last ditch effort to avoid execution, requesting clemency, or mercy, from Montana’s Governor.  Alberta resident Ronald Allen Smith was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to the brutal murder of two men on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation in 1982.  Capitol punishment is illegal in Canada and the government formally supports the clemency request.

Smith says he is a changed man. But the ultimate decision will be up to Governor Schweitzer, a supporter of the death penalty.

Uncertain winter weather was swirling around the Montana State Prison, just outside of Deer Lodge on Wednesday. A misting rain melted snowbanks dotting the surrounding hillsides. Even this seems a faraway world for a man on Montana’s Death row.

“I’ve been here for 29 years,” Ronald Allen Smith said. Ronald Allen Smith has spent more of his life in the state’s maximum security block then he spent outside of it. He has the chance to spend one hour a day outside, where he could see concrete walls a guard tower and one tan, dead hillside.”But that’s usually prior to my actually getting up so I don’t usually go out.”

This is the life Smith wants to keep–the vast majority of it spent in his cell watching TV, reading books, sending letters. He sat across a table from me in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He’d pulled back his long red hair. His handlebar mustache is streaked with gray. Smith says he is asking for mercy to spare his family what he put his victim’s family through. He has two sisters, a daughter, grandkids.

“There’s been a change. You know, I grew up–I’ve educated myself–worked really hard at changing and being a better person,” he said.

Smith was a on a drug-fueled hitchhiking trip through Montana in the Summer of 1982 when he was picked up by Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit, both in their early 20s. He marched them both into the woods and shot them both in the back of the head. Running Rabbit’s sister, Carol Russette wants Smith executed for that.

“Well in the first place he asked for it. He admitted what he did. He wanted to see how it felt to kill somebody,” Russette said.

That’s true, Smith asked for the death penalty–turning down a plea agreement that could have had him walking free a decade ago. Smith says he does not deny the crimes were horrible. But he argues he put himself in this situation, and his change of heart deserves another look.

“They’ve kept me here for 30 years. I’ve served a life sentence. So I serve a life sentence and then you put me to death. If you want to talk about fairness, where’s the fairness in that,” he said.

The white wall behind Smith was almost entirely unadorned, but one photo hung right above Smith’s head. It was a picture of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, the man who now holds Ronald Smith’s life in his hands. The State Board of Pardons and Parole will meet May 2nd for Smith’s Clemency hearing. Within 30 days they will make a recommendation to Schweitzer whether Smith’s death sentence should be commuted to life without parole.

The recommendation is not binding though–the final say is up to the Governor. Governor Schweitzer is not commenting on the Smith case for now, but is a supporter of the death penalty.

Some members of the victim’s families have recently offered support for Smith’s clemency. Smith` believes that will be key to his argument that the Governor should let him live.

“You’re asking him to make a decision you did not make for the two men you killed 30 years ago?” I asked Smith

“Yeah, well it’s…yeah, yeah I really am. I’m asking him to show me compassion.”

Whatever decision Schweitzer makes, Smith knows the rest of his days will be spent inside the maximum security block.

The question now is how many days that will be.

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