The fate of a Canadian man who has been on death row in Montana for 38 years could become more tenuous as the state gets closer to removing obstacles that prevent it from resuming executions.
Ronald Smith, 63, is originally from Red Deer, Alta., and has been on death row since 1983, a year after he and another man, high on LSD and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont., shot and killed two young Indigenous cousins.
Montana specifies that the death penalty must be accomplished by an “ultra-fast-acting” barbiturate. A district court judge stayed executions more than a decade ago after ruling that the proposed use of pentobarbital didn’t meet requirements.
But a bill that would allow Montana to use any “intravenous injection in a lethal quantity” has passed in the House of Representatives and is to be voted on this week by the senate.
Smith’s daughter, who was six when her father went to prison, is trying not to worry.
“I think it’s stupid. I think it’s stressful. If it happens, I’ll be heartbroken,” Carmen Blackburn said in an interview with The Canadian Press in Red Deer.
“This is more than revenge. This is just now inhumane. This is torture. There needs to be a decision one way or the other.”
Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued against the proposed legislation.
“(It’s) really the worst-case scenario for abolition advocates. It made it through the house, but we’re working our tails off to stop this thing in the senate,” said Sam Forstag, the union’s legislative program manager.
“I’m incredibly worried and I know all of the other abolition advocates are as well. A bill like this functionally would restore the death penalty after a years-long moratorium.”
Rep. Ed Stafman, a Democrat, had sponsored a bill calling for the death penalty to be abolished but it was defeated. He described support for the death penalty in Montana as “miles wide and inches deep.”
He also said the Republicans have a majority in the senate, so the new legislation may have the support it needs to become law.
Not all Republicans are in favour of the death penalty, he noted, so he’s crossing his fingers.
“I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful.”
Ron Waterman, a civil liberties union lawyer who worked on Smith’s case, said even if the new protocol is adopted, nothing would happen right away.
“This will only bring the case to the point where the various rulings by the court could be appealed,” Waterman said.
“Given the numerous issues which are appealable by Smith’s attorneys, the case likely will take years to resolve.”
The Montana Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, has been lobbying to have the death penalty abolished.
“This legislation moves us one step closer to restarting executions in Montana … a significant step closer. And we think that’s a terrible thing,” said executive director Matt Brower.
He said his group will work behind the scenes to try to convince senate members to vote against the new legislation.
Blackburn said her father was devastated when the outgoing Democratic governor failed to commute his sentence late last year, despite the backing of religious and social groups, as well as a new request from the Canadian government.
When Smith was first charged with murder, he refused a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for life. He later pleaded guilty and asked for the death penalty, then changed his mind and said he wanted to live.
Five execution dates have been set over the years. Each has been overturned.
Smith and Rodney Munro admitted to marching Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, into the woods by a highway in 1982. They shot them in the head with a sawed-off .22-calibre rifle.
Court heard that Smith and Munro wanted to steal the victims’ car. Smith also said at the time that he wanted to know what it was like to kill someone.
Blackburn said her father is not that man anymore.
“He took something so horrific and has been trying his darndest to turn everything around. He’s sober, he went to school. He said he would want to work with troubled kids if he ever got out,” she said.
“He’s trying, even if it’s from afar. He just wants to be able to do something good now.”
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press
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