News that the daughter of a man murdered by Red Deer’s Ronald Smith does not want him executed does not seem so shocking anymore.
More than one-third of Americans now oppose the death penalty, the highest level in 40 years, USA Today reported last year.
That number is rising and more states are moving to abandon executions. Three states have repealed death penalty laws in the past four years, and another four are now considering whether to follow suit.
Changing attitudes are being driven by exploding legal costs and growing public knowledge about miscarriages of justice.
People have been convicted and executed for crimes they did not commit.
Smith, for his part, does not fall into that category.
He was a reckless, ruthless and drug-addled young man who kidnapped two young men in Montana in 1982, marched them into the woods and shot them in the head. Smith said he wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone.
He pleaded guilty to both murders, saying he wanted a speedy trial, followed by a quick execution. Smith has long since changed his mind about that, expressing a preference to serve out his life in prison.
That’s precisely what Jessica Crawford thinks he deserves. She is the daughter of Thomas Running Rabbit, who Smith murdered along with his cousin Harvey Mad Man.
“I think he should just remain locked away,” Crawford told The Canadian Press this week.
She attended Smith’s latest court hearing in the state capital. She does not want Smith’s life spared because of any sense of compassion for the man.
“After seeing him and seeing how real it was, I just feel it is more of a punishment for him that he just sits out his years.”
More Americans are moving towards the opinion that life in prison with no chance of parole is better option.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing murderers is constitutional, as long as that law is applied fairly. But it has been abundantly demonstrated for years that fairness is lacking.
Poor Americans and racial minorities are executed at much higher rates than whites convicted of the same crimes. Too often, they are executed on the basis of flimsy evidence or weak defences by court-appointed lawyers.
Since 1978, 130 Americans who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death were later exonerated by new evidence or had their convictions overturned on appeal.
God knows how many more innocents were put to death.
Across the United States, more than 3,200 people are now on death row. California alone has 700. On average in California, it now takes 25 years for a murder suspect to be charged, prosecuted, convicted and executed.
Incarceration costs to keep them in solitary confinement during that time are huge, and legal costs are even higher.
California, as you may have read, is perilously close to bankruptcy. It is laying off teachers, firefighters and police officers. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually jumping through legal hoops to eventually execute people.
Couldn’t that tax money be better spent on things that actually protect citizens?
More states think so.
Three years ago, the state of Maryland — which is now moving to abandon executions — commissioned a detailed study on the costs of state-sponsored killing. It found that in cases where the death penalty is legal but not sought by the prosecution, it costs $1.1 million to incarcerate a convicted killer for life.
In cases where the death penalty was sought, it cost taxpayers $3 million per prisoner.
Canada avoided this kind of moral blight and fiscal hemorrhage years ago.
In 1976 under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada abolished the death penalty for civilians in a free parliamentary vote.
Some people thought the election of a majority Conservative government under Brian Mulroney would lead to a reversal on the death penalty. Mulroney tried but failed in 1987, losing a House of Commons vote by a 21-vote margin.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to share Mulroney’s views on executing murderers. He stopped Canada from taking a lead role in pressing for a worldwide ban against capital punishment.
In Ronald Smith’s case, he also refused to follow a Canadian law obliging him to ask Montana to let Smith serve out his life sentence in a Canadian prison.
Eventually, a Federal Court ruling forced Harper to do so. He did so grudgingly but Montana refused his request.
Don’t look for Harper to repeat Mulroney’s parliamentary bid to reinstate executions, though. Whatever the prime minister’s personal views, he can read the polls; they show only one in five Canadian voters favour the death penalty.
Albertans are the most bloody-minded, but even here, only one in three adults support it, according to a poll four years ago.
We have seen too many Canadians wrongly convicted of slayings but later found innocent and released. They include Steven Truscott, David Milgaard, Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin, James Driskell, Thomas Sophonow and others.
The wheels of justice grind slowly and expensively. When the costs of judicial failure are included, the price of execution laws are simply too high.
In the past 35 years, Canada has avoided learning that lesson the hard way. Americans now seem to be slowly following our lead.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.