CALGARY — It’s been a quarter-century of legal battles and court hearings, and now the only Canadian on death row in the United States is about to hit the wall in his fight to stay alive.
Ronald Smith’s case is to go before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall — the last legal option available to him.
“Frankly our assessment is any time you are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a case, and, given the limited number of cases they review, it’s probably somewhat of a long shot,” Smith’s lawyer of many years, Greg Jackson, told The Canadian Press.
“That’s really from the court system standpoint our last chance … We’ve exhausted all state and federal remedies other than the U.S. Supreme Court. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not either hear the petition or grant relief, then basically it will be remanded back to the state of Montana to go forward with an execution date.”
Smith, 52, has been living on borrowed time since he was convicted in 1983 of murdering two cousins, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit, while he was high on drugs and alcohol.
He originally requested and was granted the death penalty for his crimes, but he had a change of heart and has been fighting a legal roller coaster for the last 25 years. He has been sentenced to death four times and had the order overturned on three occasions.
Smith, originally from Red Deer, Alta., has spent 23 hours a day in his cell in the maximum-security wing of the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge. Out behind that wing sits a small trailer, the state’s death chamber, where three men have been executed by lethal injection in the last 10 years.
His latest setback came last week when a regional Appeal Court rejected a bid to have his case reheard. Jackson had argued that Smith didn’t have effective counsel when he pleaded guilty and the death penalty wasn’t warranted.
Now Jackson will file the paperwork asking the Supreme Court to review the case. A decision isn’t expected until October.
“It’s coming down to where the rubber meets the road. It’s a position that we all hoped we would never get to,” Jackson said.
If it goes as expected, and the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, the final hope will be a request for clemency from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
“Once a petition is filed, then there is notice published in newspapers throughout the state of the hearing, Jackson explained. ”There is a hearing at which the Board of Pardons and Parole listens to comments from the opponents and proponents for clemency. Then they make a recommendation to either grant or deny.
“Either way it goes to the governor.”
Jackson said the Canadian government will be asked for its support. Ottawa used to routinely lobby for clemency in such cases, but Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have brought in a policy that Canada will not get involved if there’s been a conviction in a democratic country that honours the rule of law.
But last year a Federal Court justice ruled that Ottawa couldn’t arbitrarily end its long-standing approach and ordered the government to try to win clemency for Smith.
Liberal MP Dan McTeague, the party’s critic for consular affairs, said he will hold the government to its responsibility to follow the federal court decision.
“I expect the Canadian government to stand by the law and stand by its conventions and the minister of foreign affairs to do the job to seek to commute the sentence of Ronald Smith,” said McTeague.
“The reality here is a simple call made by the Canadian government, through its minister of foreign affairs, to the governor would likely have the effect of sparing Mr. Smith’s life.”