Killer’s lawyer angry over Montana report
Official opposes clemency for death-row inmate
One of the lawyers for Canadian death-row inmate Ronald Smith is expressing anger and dismay after accidentally receiving a Montana parole board document that recommends the Albertaborn killer be denied clemency at a hearing next month that could determine whether he is executed this year for murdering two men in Montana three decades ago.
The four-page preliminary report — prepared by an official with the state agency ahead of Smith’s May 2 clemency hearing — serves mainly as a backgrounder for the parole board panel that subsequently will make its own recommendation to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Schweitzer, assuming the issue is resolved before his term as governor runs out in 2013, ultimately will decide whether the only Canadian on death row in the U.S. should be spared the death penalty or executed by lethal injection for the August 1982 gunshot murders of Blackfeet Indian cousins Thomas Running Rabbit, 19, and Harvey Mad Man, 23, in the woods south of the Alberta-Montana border.
But Don Vernay, a New Mexico-based member of the legal team trying to convince Montana’s parole board and Schweitzer to commute Smith’s death sentence to life imprisonment, told Postmedia News on Friday: “You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see where the board is coming from.”
The pre-hearing report, inadvertently leaked to Vernay and Smith’s Montana-based lawyer, Greg Jackson, “discounts all of Ron’s good behaviour and achievements in prison,” Vernay added.
He also took aim at the report’s summary of Smith’s psychological state, a key factor in the 54-year-old Canadian’s bid to convince Schweitzer that he is a fundamentally reformed man deserving of merciful treatment despite his horrific crimes.
“The psychological report the board relies on is the worst I have ever seen,” Vernay said.
“All the psychologist did was rely on a 1994 pre-sentence report by an untrained probation officer who sold toasters for a living before he became a parole officer.
“The psychologist interviewed nobody, did no testing and even had the name of the psychologist working on Smith’s case, back in 1994, wrong.”
Vernay insisted the assessment of Smith’s mental state “was nothing but a drive-by opinion, which is no way to conduct an evaluation when someone’s life is at stake.”
The pre-hearing report cites a psychological assessment conducted on March 5 this year that concluded Smith “is not an individual with a strong desire to make amends or prove himself a good citizen.”
The referenced psychological report also stated that, “to the extent that clear evidence of remorse and unmitigated responsibility-taking is the gateway to rehabilitation, the impression (is) that the extent of this individual’s rehabilitation is limited, or questionable.”
The backgrounder to the parole board panel flagged various concerns about Smith’s behaviour in prison over the years, including an alleged 1991 threat purportedly made against a judge who had upheld the death sentence.
“Smith’s behaviour in prison has not been abysmal, but it has also not been stellar,” the overview states.
Finally, the advance report presented to the parole board members — and mistakenly mailed to Smith’s lawyers on April 2 — concludes:
“Smith does not meet any of the commutation criteria” under Montana’s clemency protocols.
“Smith hasn’t demonstrated an extended period of exemplary performance, and there doesn’t appear to be any extraordinary mitigating or exemplary circumstances that would constitute the exceptional remedy such as commutation,” the report states, noting that the death sentence Smith initially asked for in 1982 — but later mounted a 25-year legal battle to overturn — “does not appear to be grossly unfair.”
In a February interview with Postmedia News, Smith appealed directly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to consider “who I’ve become” and not “who I used to be” in voicing Canada’s support for the Montana clemency application.
“The level of maturity I’ve gained over the last 15 or 20 years, I think, is a huge difference,” said Smith, whose clemency bid hinges on what his 19-page application described as his solid record of rehabilitation in prison and the “heartfelt remorse” he feels over the 1982 killings.
Smith’s clemency request was accompanied by two lengthy letters of support from a Catholic priest and a retired prison teacher who had helped the Canadian inmate obtain credits toward a post-secondary education.
Harper’s Conservative government abruptly decided in October 2007 to deny further official Canadian support for Smith’s attempts to avoid the death penalty, saying he had been convicted in a democratic country and didn’t deserve special intervention from a tough-on-crime federal cabinet.
But that decision ran counter to a long-standing foreign affairs policy of seeking clemency for Canadians sentenced to death in foreign countries, and the Federal Court of Canada later ruled the government had to back Smith.
Canada did send a letter to Montana in December asking the state parole board to spare Smith’s life.
“The government of Canada does not sympathize with violent crime and this letter should not be construed as reflecting a judgment on Mr. Smith’s conduct,” the government’s letter, signed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, stated.
“The government of Canada ... requests that you grant clemency to Mr. Smith on humanitarian grounds.”
But the Conservative government’s low-key support for the clemency bid has prompted criticism from opposition MPS, who argue that Canada’s abolition of capital punishment in 1976 requires the country take a more forceful stand against the possible U.S. execution of a Canadian citizen.