Canadian Asked For Death, But Now Wants Life

The only Canadian on death row in the United States is making one last ditch effort to avoid execution. Capitol punishment is illegal in Canada and the Canadian government formally supports the clemency request, but the final word is up to the governor, a vocal supporter of the death penalty.

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Canadian Asked For Death, But Now Wants Life

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Canadian Asked For Death, But Now Wants Life

Law

Canadian Asked For Death, But Now Wants Life

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Ronald Allen Smith admits that he is a murderer, but he doesn't want to die for it. Smith is in a Montana prison. He happens to be the only Canadian on death row in the United States, and he's making a last effort to avoid execution, asking the governor for clemency.

Montana Public Radio's Dan Boyce has the story.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: The Montana State Prison is about an hour and a half southeast of Missoula. A light rain falls outside, melting lingering snowbanks on the surrounding hillsides. Even this seems a faraway world for a man inside the prison.

RONALD ALLEN SMITH: I've been here for 29 years.

BOYCE: Canadian Ronald Allen Smith has spent more of his life in the state's maximum security block than he spent outside of it, trying to think about his crime as little as possible.

SMITH: If you have any sensibility whatsoever, it's not something that you can dwell on and keep your sanity.

BOYCE: It was the summer of 1982. Smith and some friends were hitchhiking on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation when they were picked up by Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit - both in their early 20s. Smith wanted their car, so he marched Mad Man and Running Rabbit into the woods and shot them both in the back of the head.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLOSING)

BOYCE: Today, Smith sits across a table from me in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He's pulled back his long red hair. His handlebar mustache is streaked with gray. What's strange is Smith originally pleaded guilty and asked for the death penalty. He even turned down a plea deal that would have spared his life and made him eligible for parole by now. Shortly after a judge approved the death sentence, Smith changed his mind. He's been fighting it ever since and has become something of a model prisoner.

SMITH: I grew up. I've educated myself, worked real hard at changing and becoming a better person.

BOYCE: The government should recognize and reward that kind of change, says Smith's attorney Ron Waterman.

RON WATERMAN: If clemency has meaning and if indeed that's the policy of the state of Montana, then I believe Ron Smith is an excellent candidate.

BOYCE: Canada officially supports reducing Smith's sentence to life in prison, and the country's media has been talking about the Smith case for years. Take this 2008 report from CTV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOYCE: Back in Montana, victim Thomas Running Rabbit's sister Carol Russette wants the sentence carried out.

CAROL RUSSETTE: Well, in the first place, he asked for it. He admitted what he did. He wanted to see how it felt to kill somebody.

BOYCE: To this day, she still remembers the events clearly.

RUSSETTE: My dad called me and told me that they had found him. When we got there, his body was still in the brush because they didn't bring it out yet.

SMITH: I'm not denying what I did. You know, this isn't saying it somehow atones for the crimes that I committed. But I have gone out of my way to become a better person.

BOYCE: The white wall behind Smith is almost entirely unadorned, but one photo hangs right above his head. It's a picture of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, the man with the final say on Smith's clemency. The governor is not commenting on the case but is a supporter of the death penalty.

SMITH: Since I have become a better person, then why not take an honest look at it.

BOYCE: You're asking him to make a decision that you did not make for the two men you killed 30 years ago?

SMITH: Yeah. Well, it's - yeah, yeah. I really am. I'm asking him to show me compassion.

BOYCE: The state is holding the clemency hearing in May. Whatever decision Governor Schweitzer makes, Smith knows the rest of his days will be spent inside the maximum security block. The question now is how many days that will be. For NPR news, I'm Dan Boyce in Helena.

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