Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer has met with the family of the only Canadian on death row in the United States to discuss his feelings on whether or not he should let that sentence be carried out.
Alberta Native Ronald Allen Smith murdered two Native American men on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation in the early 1980s.
Smith says he is a changed man after his nearly 30 years in prison, and has asked that Schweitzer commute his sentence to life with no possibility of parole.
The state board of Pardons and Parole has recommended to the Governor that he allow the execution be carried out.
The Governor made it clear he’s conflicted.
Officially, Governor Schweitzer supports the death penalty. Yet, you would never have known that listening to his nearly one hour discussion with the family of convicted killer, Ronald Allen Smith. Schweitzer gave almost nothing but reasons why he should grant clemency, or mercy, to Smith. Smith originally asked for the death penalty after pleading guilty to the drug-fueled murders of Thomas Running Rabbit Jr. and Harvey Mad Man—both in their early 20s.
He soon changed his mind, though and has been fighting the sentence ever since. But another man charged in the same crime asked for a different sentence, and has since received parole and is living in Canada a free man.
Schweitzer says Smith is not asking for parole, he knows no matter what he will die in prison.
“He will die in a small room in a foreign country,” Schweitzer said. “He knows that. He’s asking that he simply be allowed to die more slowly.”
Schweitzer calls Smith’s original request for the death penalty akin to state-assisted suicide. The governor says he had another man with the same request during his tenure.
Murderer David Thompson Dawson was executed in 2006.
“…And damn him to hell for forcing the state of Montana and me to help him in his suicide,” Schweitzer said.
The family sat quiet much of the meeting, wiping away tears. Sister Rita Duncan says she shunned Smith for many years only to later reconnect and find the man had genuinely changed behind bars.
“You couldn’t disguise the change, you can’t fake the change, you can’t,” she said.
The families of the victims also met with Schweitzer years ago, and told him they would not feel closure without Smith being put to death. Schweitzer back then said he had a moral obligation to think first about the families of the Montana victims.
On Friday, to Smith’s family, Schweitzer said many people believe the corrections system should just be about retribution—without considering the ability of an inmate to reform.
“If you stole something, we’re going to steal a portion of your life and put you in a cage. If you stole somebody’s life, we’re going to steal your life. (That’s) Retribution. I don’t know if that’s what our corrections system would like to be known as.”
Schweitzer closed the discussion by saying he is still weighing the difficult sides of this decision.
“I can’t tell you what actions I might take,” he said. “I think you had an opportunity to look into my heart. And I’ve had an opportunity to look into your hearts as well.”
With that the family said they were off to see Smith at the Montana State Prison.
There is no deadline for Schweitzer to make his decision.