Bad news for Canadian: Montana death penalty stays
(Bill Graveland/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Saturday, March 19, 2011 7:27PM EDT
CALGARY - A proposal to abolish Montana's death penalty has failed, spelling more bad news for Ronald Smith, the only Canadian on death row in the United States.
For the second time in the past four years the bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison made it through the Senate but didn't get by the Montana House judiciary committee, which voted Friday to table the bill.
"I can't honestly say I'm surprised but I can say I'm very, very disappointed again that we moved it as far as we did and we've come up short the second session in a row," said Montana Senator Dave Wanzenried, who sponsored the bill, in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"It's all about politics now unfortunately. I think they're afraid it's going to pass because I think when people are put in the position of voting their conscience instead of voting for the caucus it really becomes more of a partisan issue now," he said.
"I think the Republicans are concerned that some of their members will stray and they will vote for abolition."
Smith, a 53-year-old originally from Red Deer, Alta., has been living on borrowed time since he was convicted in Montana in 1983 for shooting to death two cousins, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit, while he was high on drugs and alcohol, near East Glacier, Mont.
He had been taking 30 to 40 hits of LSD and consuming between 12 and 18 beer a day at the time of the murders. Still, he refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row and spend the rest of his life in prison. Three weeks later, he pleaded guilty. He asked for and was given a death sentence.
He later had a change of heart and has been on a legal roller coaster for the last 25 years. An execution date has been set five times and each time the orders were overturned.
"Am I surprised? God no. Are you kidding me? The Republican majority in the house is substantial so no I'm not," said lawyer Don Vernay, a co-counsel for Smith, who works out of Albuquerque, N.M.
"It's the same thing they did last time. So now we just do what we can like we always have. There's still relief in the civil lawsuit that's going around so there's still a stay on executions in Montana," he said.
Wanzenried said the current session is still sitting in Helena and he and his colleagues will sit down and see if there is any other avenues that can be pursued.
"I will tell you I'm undeterred. I'm not going to stop just because we've had a setback. There's too much at stake in this kind of an issue," he said.
"There's a parliamentary procedure to bring the bill out of committee but it requires a 3/5 vote of the house which is a super majority and in this session would be very, very difficult to obtain," said Wanzenried.
"That's not likely to succeed."
A civil suit had been filed on Smith's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that Montana's use of lethal injection is unconstitutionally cruel.
The civil judge ruled the execution couldn't go ahead until that case was dealt with but there's no timeframe on when it will be heard.
That leaves an interesting quandry for Smith's lawyers. Do they wait until the civil lawsuit is dealt with or do they pursue a clemency application now with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is in his second and final term of office and has nothing to lose politically.
"We'll have to put our heads together and decide what we're going to do. Obviously the next step - sooner or later it's going to have to be an application for clemency. The timing of that is something that have to be discussed," said Vernay.
"Probably if we stand a chance of clemency at all very possibly it might be with Schweitzer. He's a Democratic governor but he supports the death penalty."
A Canadian court has already ruled that the Stephen Harper government must pursue clemency for Smith. Dale Eisler, Canada's consul general for the area, told Schweitzer last year that Smith should be spared the death penalty if the case comes to him.