Alberta man on death row in Montana could benefit from Liberal policy

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

CALGARY – An apparent change in federal policy regarding Canadians facing execution in other countries could benefit an Alberta man who has been on death row in Montana for more than 30 years.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion issued a statement Monday following a meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“If the government of Canada does not ask for clemency for every Canadian facing the death penalty, how can we be credible when we ask for clemency in selective cases or countries?,” said Dion’s statement.

“We must end this incoherent double standard. Canada opposes the death penalty and will ask for clemency in each and every case, no exceptions.”

That statement is a far cry from the former Conservative government, which offered what was described as “tepid support” for Ronald Smith in his clemency hearing in Helena, Mont., in 2011.

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The clemency board recommended against commuting Smith’s sentence and the request is now sitting on the desk of current Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has yet to make a final decision.

One of Smith’s lawyers wasn’t surprised at the Canadian government’s chance of heart.

“I assumed with Trudeau getting in that there was going to be a change in policy,” said one of Smith’s long-time lawyers, Don Vernay, who now practises law in Albuquerque, N.M.

“I mean he’s legalizing dope so it’s obvious he’s a bit more Liberal in his point of view.”

Smith, who is originally from Red Deer, Alta., has been on death row since 1983 for fatally shooting two cousins while he was high on drugs and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont.

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.

Smith 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.

Vernay said it’s a shame that the new philosophy wasn’t in effect prior to the clemency hearing, but he said it’s good news and hopefully will hold sway with Bullock.

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“As usual, hope springs eternal from this end,” said Vernay.

“We’ll see. It’s up to Gov. Bullock now and hopefully he will take Canada’s wishes into consideration.”

All executions in Montana have been stayed since a 2008 challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union.

A Montana judge rejected a request from the state last year to change one of the drugs used to execute prisoners on death row.

The decision could still be appealed.

Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

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