Canadian on death row expected to plead for his life

CALGARY — The lone Canadian on death row in the United States is expected to make a plea for his life at his clemency hearing in Montana this week.

Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith

CALGARY — The lone Canadian on death row in the United States is expected to make a plea for his life at his clemency hearing in Montana this week.

Ronald Smith, 54, has been on death row since 1982 after he and an accomplice, both high on drugs, marched Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man Jr. into the woods near East Glacier, Mont., and shot both of them in the head.

It was a cold-blooded crime. They wanted to steal the men’s car, but Smith also said he wanted to know what it was like to kill someone.

His is the final name on the list of 16 witnesses put forward by his attorneys for the two-day clemency hearing before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole beginning Wednesday in Deer Lodge, Mont.

The hearing is being held near the federal penitentiary where Smith, originally from Red Deer, Alta., has spent the last three decades locked up.

“I’ve always wanted an opportunity to step outside of all of this and to be able to apologize to the family and explain to them just everything about me at that point in time. I was a completely different person,” Smith said in an interview last month with The Canadian Press. “It’s who I am, who I’ve become and what I’ve got going into the future.”

The decision to speak at the hearing before the three-member panel was entirely up to Smith, said Don Vernay, co-counsel for Smith who works out of Albuquerque, N.M.

“What we want to do is wait until everything is done and then have the last word,” he said. “He’s got to speak to the board. These are the people who are going to decide if he lives or dies. He’s going to express his remorse and his desire to live.”

A flood of support has been flowing into the office of the Board of Pardons and Parole asking it to spare Smith’s life.

“Our office has received and continues to receive a colossal amount of support for the commutation from around the world based on individuals’ moral beliefs against the death penalty rather than a personal investment or opinion with this particular case,” writes a board staffer in a leaked report obtained by The Canadian Press last month.

That report angered Smith’s lawyers. It recommended that the panel deny the request clemency, leading his legal team to suggest that the decision might already be made.

One of the letters is from the Secretary-General of The Council of Europe, a 47-country organization that focuses on human rights and the protection of individuals. The letter argues Smith has expressed regret for his “deplorable” actions, has reformed his life and developed strong relationships with family members.

There is also a letter from the Canadian government, but it has been criticized for publicly lacking determination on the Smith file.

The Harper government initially refused to back Smith’s calls for clemency, saying he was convicted in a democratic country. But the Federal Court ruled it must follow the long-standing practice of lobbying on behalf of Canadians sentenced to death in other countries and the letter was sent.

“The government of Canada does not sympathize with violent crime and this letter should not be construed as reflecting a judgment on Mr. Smith’s conduct,” says the Dec. 5 letter from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “The government of Canada … requests that you grant clemency to Mr. Smith on humanitarian grounds.”

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae has sent his own letter to the board and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer requesting clemency.

“It’s well known that the Government of Canada right now is enormously ambivalent about this,” Rae said in a telephone interview. “It’s a case that calls out for clemency.

“There’s no question he’s accepted his responsibility for what happened and has shown a great deal of contrition and remorse about it.”

Smith’s daughter, who is now 35, will appear in person at the hearing.

“He did something bad. He screwed plenty of stuff up. But he didn’t sit in there and let himself waste away, continue with the drugs and all that stuff,” Carmen Blackburn told The Canadian Press. “He’s a good man.”

“How do you tell someone how much you love them and how much they mean to your family? It’s a hard thing to describe because it’s your heart and that’s what he is — he’s my heart,” she added softly.

Jessica Crawford, Running Rabbit’s daughter and Mad Man’s cousin, could not be reached for comment.

But last December she told The Canadian Press that while her late grandparents wanted to see Smith put to death, she would rather see Smith spend the rest of his days behind bars.