Ronald Smith, once of Red Deer, committed brutal crimes in Montana 30 years ago. Drunk and stoned on LSD, he marched Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man Jr. into the woods and shot them. He has spent the last three decades on death row and is now awaiting word on his final appeal to have his sentence commuted.
In a wrenchingly emotional clemency hearing last week he said he is “horrendously sorry” and wept.
His lawyer argued that at 54 “he is a changed man” whose life is worth preserving. His sister asked for “grace and mercy” in the case.
But relatives of the victims called him “the scum of the earth” and “an animal,” and demanded that he be made to pay the full price for his crimes.
Whatever the Montana review panel recommends later this month, Gov. Brian Schweitzer will get the final say on Smith’s fate. When that time comes, he should let grace and mercy temper justice. The argument that the state must kill to uphold the sanctity of life has never been a strong one. In 2012, it is less persuasive than ever.
It does Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government no great credit that it has intervened only minimally in this case, requesting clemency only after it was ordered to do so by Federal Court in line with long-standing federal policy.
Amnesty International rightly calls the death penalty “the ultimate denial of human rights” and a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most of the world agrees. Since Smith committed his crimes, more than 65 countries, Canada and most Western democracies included, have abolished it. Of 198 countries, 141 are abolitionist in law or practice and only 57 are retentionist. Even of those, just 20 executed people last year.
This dramatic trend away from barbarism leaves the U.S. and states such as Montana in the unsavoury company of China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as active executors. Even in the U.S., 17 of the 50 states have now abolished the death penalty, and with good reason.
Capital punishment reduces the state to the same moral level as the most violent criminals, piling violence upon violence.
It is used, disproportionately, by repressive regimes and against the poor and marginalized. Mistakes cannot be remedied. And the deterrent value is minimal, arguably no more than a life sentence. We have come to expect better of ourselves.
Beyond this global swing in public opinion, specific factors argue for clemency in Smith’s case. He was an abused youth. He was drunk and high on hallucinogens when he committed his crimes, and his judgment was impaired when he actively asked for the death penalty. Rodney Munro, an accomplice who stabbed one of the victims, wisely accepted a plea deal, was eventually shipped home to Canada and has served his time.
Finally, those who know Smith best agree that after decades on death row, most of it in isolation, he has defied all odds and changed for the better, showing remorse and regret for the “so many lives” he has destroyed: those of his victims, their families, his own life and that of his family.
Better to let him live behind bars with that remorse rather than snuff it out with yet another act of violence.
An editorial from the Toronto Star.