Canadian on Montana death row says he's changed

AP News
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Posted: Feb 22, 2012 5:54 PM
Canadian on Montana death row says he's changed

A Canadian awaiting execution in Montana for a 1982 killing said Wednesday that he thinks there is a good chance the governor will spare his life now that he's a far different person than the out-of-control youth that took the lives of two young Blackfeet Indian men.

Ronald A. Smith of Red Deer, Alberta, has exhausted his legal appeals and is asking for life in prison instead of the death penalty.

Smith told The Associated Press in a prison interview that leniency from Gov. Brian Schweitzer is his only remaining option to avoid the death penalty, and he believes the governor will recognize that he is a changed man. Smith is speaking out in interviews for the first time in an effort to demonstrate he is worthy of executive clemency.

The Canadian government also now formally supports clemency for Smith, although the 54-year-old convict said he thinks the support from his home country is only lukewarm and won't have much bearing on the governor's final decision.

But Smith's case faces strong opposition from another government, the Blackfeet Tribal Council, and family members of the victim.

Smith was sentenced to death in March 1983, seven months after he marched cousins Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, into the woods just off U.S. 2 near Marias Pass and shot them both in the head with a .22-caliber rifle. They had picked up Smith, who was partying his way around northern Montana with some friends.

Smith, who was 24 at the time of the killings, said he looks back on that killing with deep regret _ although he tries not to dwell on it much because it is too depressing.

"I look back with disgust at what happened," said Smith. "Regardless of the drugs and alcohol that were involved, it was obviously ridiculous events that took place. I now just recognize the foolishness of it all."

Smith said he was heavily intoxicated that day and doesn't have a strong recollection of the men he killed.

Smith said he can understand why most of the family members of the victims are angry with him and continue to ask the governor to keep the death penalty intact. But Smith said he has rehabilitated himself with an education and by reconnecting severed ties with his own family, who he now talks to on an almost daily basis over the telephone.

"I kind of hope they would recognize I am not the same person. Obviously, I committed those crimes. I am not trying to say I didn't. But I am not the same person anymore," Smith said. "It is hard. What do you say, what can you say, to the families you have taken lives from?"

The Blackfeet Nation is also taking a hard stance with Smith, and pressuring Schweitzer to dismiss Smith's request.

"We feel that if the governor were to grant clemency, that means the governor views Native American life different than other lives in Montana," said tribal council member and state Sen. Shannon Augare of Browning. "This was a huge, devastating tragedy in our community. We still feel very strong emotions from the various family members that were affected by that tragedy. In short, we want to ensure that justice prevails here."

Schweitzer has been mostly silent on the case recently. In the past, he has indicated that the stance of the Canadian government won't affect his decisions much.

The Canadian government has not formally reached out to the governor on the matter I years, and over that time had a short-lived internal switch in policy where it was not seeking relief for Smith.

The governor has met with family members of the victims and told them he has a "moral obligation" to think of them first in any decision.

During his political campaigns, Schweitzer has expressed support for the death penalty. But while in office, he has said such decisions should not be taken lightly.

The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole will hear Smith's case on May 2. That board will send a recommendation to the governor, who has the final word.

The Montana attorney general's office said it will continue to defend the conviction.

"The state of Montana will file a written response opposing Ronald Allen Smith's petition and intends to defend the strong court record upholding his original death sentences," said attorney general spokesman John Doran.

If the governor rejects Smith's petition, it may not be much longer until he faces the death penalty. His execution is only now being formally delayed as legal arguments continue over whether the lethal injection method currently used by Montana is constitutional.

Smith, who has lived for 30 years in the least-comfortable maximum security portion, said he doubts that legal arguments in the court system will delay his death sentence much longer.

Smith said under the best case scenario he still spends the rest of his life behind bars. But he hopes Schweitzer will spare his life despite the strong emotions involved in the case.

"It is definitely going to be difficult from a personal perspective for him. Whatever decision he makes will be difficult," Smith said.