Montana politician wants death penalty gone, which could help Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith is shown on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
Ronald Smith is shown on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

CALGARY – Montana politicians will try once again to pass legislation to get rid of the death penalty – something that would have a direct impact on death-row Canadian Ronald Smith.

Republican Rep. David Moore is proposing a bill which would abolish executions and replace them with life imprisonment with no chance of parole. It would be made retroactive to include Smith, 57, and another death-row inmate, William Jay Gollehon.

“To me the worst punishment in the world would be to be locked in a cage the rest of my life,” said Moore in an interview Wednesday with The Canadian Press.

But his decision to bring the bill forward isn’t about seeking leniency for Smith, who Moore said was guilty of a “heinous act,” but rather to give the Montana taxpayer a break.

“I just look at this as the cost. That’s the reason I oppose it. I don’t think it’s a deterrent. I think it’s more of a prosecutorial tactic,” he said.

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“We could use (the money) to hire guards at the state prison where we’re understaffed. There are a lot of better uses … (for) the money.”

READ MORE: Complication in Alberta man’s death sentence 

Smith, who is originally from Red Deer, Alta., was convicted in Montana in 1983 for shooting to death two cousins 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 beers a day.

He refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row and spend the rest of his life in prison instead. 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 decades. An execution date has been set five times and each time the order was overturned.

READ MORE: Clock ticking down on clemency hopes for Ronald Smith 

“I understand the families in this Ronald Smith case and the heartache they’ve been through. It was a pretty heinous act,” said Moore, who describes himself as a “moderate” Republican.

“Whether or not it gets out of committee, I don’t know, and it’s got to go to the House floor and over to the Senate.

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Smith still has a clemency application before Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. There is also an outstanding civil action involving the American Civil Liberties Union.

One of his lawyers, Don Vernay, is encouraged that the bill is being brought forward but is not particularly optimistic.

“After all these years how the hell can you be? Hope springs eternal but that’s as far as I can go,” he said.

Similar legislation to abolish the death penalty has been brought forward in Montana four other times, but didn’t get past a judiciary committee.

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