HELENA (AP) – Canadian officials have been advocating Montana commute the death sentence of a Canadian national on death row, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday.
Ronald A. Smith is one of two people on death row in Montana, and is believed to be the only Canadian citizen on death row in the United States.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Schweitzer said he has met with Canadian officials several times since taking office and expects Smith’s case to come up when he visits Canada next week.
The case has gained attention because Canada does not have a death penalty and has long been at odds with the United States over its application to Canadian citizens.
Schweitzer said Canadian officials began talking to him about commutation of Smith’s sentence “before I was even sworn in.”
A spokesman for the Consulate General of Canada in Denver declined to comment Thursday evening.
Smith, of Red Deer, Alberta, pleaded guilty to killing Browning residents Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, near East Glacier to steal their car in 1982.
His attorney, Greg Jackson of Helena, said that shortly after Smith was arrested, the Flathead County attorney offered him a plea agreement that included time in prison and no restrictions on parole. Had Smith accepted the deal, “he would long ago have been eligible for parole,” Jackson said.
“But he was young and depressed and asked the judge to execute him,” Jackson said. “His attorney allowed him to plead guilty and request death, even though there was a beneficial plea agreement on the table.”
Smith later changed his mind and began fighting for resentencing. He has since exhausted all of his appeals in state court and nearly all of his appeals in federal court, Jackson said.
An appeal of a March decision by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell is pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Jackson said he expects a decision in roughly nine months.
If the 9th Circuit rules against Smith, he can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up his case. If the high court says no, Smith’s last hope would be clemency or commutation from the governor, Jackson said.
In Montana, requests for commutation must first be filed with the state Board of Pardons and Parole. The board then conducts a public hearing on the request and makes a recommendation to the governor.
Schweitzer, who supports the death penalty, did not say Thursday whether he would grant Smith a commutation.
“There’s one thing that’s frustrating, and that is simply this: The facts in the case are not disputed,” the governor said. “He (Smith), after several days and nights of drugs and alcohol, picked up a couple of young Blackfeet men in Kalispell, and he told them he’d give them a ride back over to Browning. And somewhere on Marias Pass, he stopped and brutally executed them, maybe tortured them a little on the way. And those are the facts, not disputed.”
Schweitzer said Smith already has served more than 20 years in prison, and a life sentence in Canada is only 25 years.
“If we were to send him back to Canada, for example, then he’d be turned loose shortly after he arrived there,” Schweitzer said. “So those are some of the discussions that I’ve actually had with them.
“Obviously I would take into consideration the ideas of the families of these young men that were brutally executed, and I’m still visiting with the people from Canada,” he said.
Smith’s attorney, however, said the chances of Smith being granted parole in Canada are “minimal.”
“He certainly wouldn’t automatically be released,” Jackson said.
Smith’s case would be reviewed by a parole board, and would be subject to the same scrutiny as any other case, he said.
Jackson described Smith as a “bright, intelligent, compassionate man” who is “very remorseful for what he’s done.” He added that officials with the Canadian government are adamant about bringing him back.
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