The only Canadian on death row in the United States is in the Montana State Prison, about an hour and a half southeast of Missoula. After almost three decades, he is asking the governor of Montana for mercy. The request for clemency is the last chance Alberta native Ronald Allen Smith has of avoiding execution.
“I’ve been here for 29 years,” says Smith, who has spent more of his life inside the state’s maximum security block than he has spent outside of it. He has tried to think about his crime as little as possible.
“If you have any sensibility whatsoever, it’s not something that you can dwell on and keep your sanity,” he says.
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 and had a morbid desire. So he marched Mad Man and Running Rabbit into the woods and shot them both in the back of the head.
What makes Smith’s situation strange is that he 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 has been fighting it ever since and has become something of a model prisoner.
“You know, I grew up,” Smith says, sitting at a table in the prison, in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. His long red hair is pulled back, and his handlebar mustache is streaked with gray. “I’ve educated myself, worked real hard at changing and becoming a better person.” The government should recognize and reward that kind of change, Smith’s attorney, Ron Waterman, says.
“If clemency has meaning, and if that indeed that’s the policy of the state of Montana, then I believe Smith is an excellent candidate,” Waterman says.
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.
“The killer was a Canadian, and ever since the death penalty was abolished in Canada, this country has been taking an active role in trying to persuade other countries not to execute Canadian citizens,” explains a 2008 report from Canadian broadcaster CTV.
But victim Thomas Running Rabbit’s sister, Carol Russette, wants the sentence carried out. “Well, in the first place he asked for it,” Russette says. “He admitted what he did. He wanted to see how it felt to kill somebody.”
To this day she still remembers the events clearly. “My Dad called me and told me that they had found him,” she says. “When we got there his body was still in the brush because they didn’t bring it out yet.”
“I’m not denying what I did,” Smith says. “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.”
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.
“Since I have become a better person, then why not take an honest look at it?” Smith says. But he stumbles when trying to explain why the governor should grant him the clemency he himself didn’t advocate for years ago. “Yeah, well it’s…yeah. Yeah I really am, um…I’m asking him to show me compassion.”
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.