TORONTO – A lawsuit to be argued Monday alleges a Canadian on Montana’s death row for 25 years is more likely to be executed because Canada’s Conservative government stopped seeking clemency.
The government’s “abrupt abandonment of their promises and long-standing practice has now created severe detriment” to Ronald Smith, the suit states. “In particular, he is now at enhanced risk of execution.”
The lawsuit before a Canadian federal court in Toronto accuses the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of playing politics with Smith’s life.
In 1982, then-24-year-old Smith and two buddies from Red Deer, Alberta, were hitchhiking through Montana. They robbed two cousins who offered them a ride, and Smith shot both men through the head along U.S. Highway 2 near Marias Pass.
Defended by an inexperienced lawyer who had spent just six hours on the case, Smith pleaded guilty and demanded a death sentence despite being in a “disturbed mental state,” the suit claims.
His co-accused both pleaded guilty, were later transferred to Canada and were paroled.
Documents show Canadian government efforts over some 15 years to push for the Montana governor to commute Smith’s death sentence and transfer Smith to Canada were starting to bear fruit.
Then last fall, the Conservative government decided its law-and-order policies were inconsistent with advocating for Smith.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said it would “send the wrong message” to press the case.
Years of Foreign Affairs efforts came to a “screeching halt,” one of Smith’s U.S. lawyers, Don Vernay, said in an interview.
“We thought (clemency) was a go (but) that whole change by your government, or your prime minister, really threw a monkey wrench into things,” Vernay said from Albuquerque, N.M., this past week. “It was insane.”
Just days after Day spoke last November, Harper explained his position.
“Were we to intervene, it would very quickly become a question of whether we are prepared to repatriate a double murderer to Canada,” Harper said.
“In light of this government’s strong initiatives on tackling violent crime, I think that would send the wrong signal to the Canadian population.”
The Liberals accuse the Harper government of “flawed logic.”
“We will vigorously reassert Canada’s long-standing position of seeking clemency for Canadians sentenced to death — in any country, anywhere in the world,” their election campaign platform states.
Vernay said he was sure the federal government could help save Smith’s life should yet another pending appeal fail.
It would also burnish Canada’s international reputation, he said.
“Canada has always been a beacon of human rights,” Vernay said.
“To see that change, God it was terrible. It was heartbreaking.”
The lawsuit argues under both constitutional and administrative law that Smith had a “legitimate expectation” Canada would continue seeking clemency and he relied on that.
“Once having embarked on that process, they had to continue it,” said Smith’s Toronto lawyer, Lorne Waldman.
“If they were going to change it, they had to advise him,” Waldman said.
The government counterclaims that policy decisions are not subject to court review.
Smith’s death sentence has been overturned twice and upheld three times.
The case is currently before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.