Opposition Leaders Seek to Commute Smith

By Beacon Staff

OTTAWA, Ontario (AP) – Opposition leaders are appealing to the governor of Montana to spare the life of a Canadian on death row, telling the American politician that they – not the Conservative government – represent the majority on the issue of capital punishment.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion and New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton both wrote personal letters Thursday to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, meanwhile, was coordinating a petition of members of parliament also seeking commutation.

Ronald A. Smith, who was born in Alberta, was sentenced to execution in 1983 for the murder of two American Indians. The Conservative government recently revealed it had changed Canada’s policy on citizens facing the death penalty abroad, saying it wouldn’t appeal for the lives of citizens convicted of multiple murders in democratic countries.

“Canada abolished the death penalty more than 30 years ago and the majority of Canadians continue to believe that we must oppose its use, both domestically and in cases where Canadian citizens face this punishment abroad,” Dion wrote. “I share this belief and as Leader of the Official Opposition in our Parliament, it is my duty to convey to you the conviction of millions of Canadians who want to see Mr. Smith’s sentence commuted.”

“Canadians hold deep convictions on the issue of the death penalty,” Layton said in his letter. “We do not dispute that Ronald Smith has committed offenses for which he deserves punishment; he must pay his due to society and be kept from doing further harm to the American public.”

Up until the end of last month, Schweitzer said he had been receiving calls from the Department of Foreign Affairs asking for Smith’s sentence to be commuted. That changed when reporters began asking the Conservative government questions about Smith’s situation.

In Montana, requests for commutation are made after an execution date is set. Requests must be filed with the state Board of Pardons and Parole. The board then conducts a public hearing and makes a recommendation to the governor.

Debate over capital punishment is not entirely resolved in Montana. The state Senate passed a motion to abolish the death penalty earlier this year, but the bill died in a House committee.

At this time, all executions by lethal injection are effectively on hold in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hold a hearing early next year on whether lethal injections constitute cruel and unusual punishment. A decision is expected by June.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson repeated that the Canadian government had not changed its policy on the use of the death penalty in Canada, and would continue to push for a global moratorium on its use.

However, he added that “individuals who commit multiple murders and mass-murders abroad … cannot necessarily count on the Canadian government to claim clemency and repatriation back to this country.”

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