MT:Convicted killer Ronald Smith may be saved from execution
Thu Dec 23, 2010 04:03
Convicted killer Ronald Smith may be saved from execution by Montana lawmakers BY RANDY BOSWELL, POSTMEDIA NEWS DECEMBER 22, 2010 5:05 PM
After a stay of execution for Alberta-born killer Ronald Smith was upheld last week by Montana's top court, a lawyer for the only Canadian on death row in the U.S. says the reprieve could buy Smith enough time for the state to abolish the death penalty — something Montana legislators almost did last year.
A Montana Supreme Court ruling last Tuesday scuttled a Jan. 31 execution date that had been set in early November by a district court judge. Instead, the top court backed an earlier court decision that blocks Smith's execution pending the outcome of a 2008 lawsuit — filed on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union — over the state's lethal-injection method of capital punishment.
The postponing of the execution, a member of Smith's three-man legal team told Postmedia News, raises the possibility that Montana's state legislature could revive and approve abolition legislation before a new date is set for the Canadian inmate's execution.
"This stay may allow sufficient time to have the 2011 legislature consider the abolition bill this session," said Helena-based attorney Ron Waterman, a well-known figure in Montana's legal community who ran unsuccessfully in 2008 to become the state's attorney general.
The abolition bill, which passed the state Senate in 2009 but was defeated in a 10-8 vote by a House committee, would have retroactively replaced Smith's death sentence with a term of life imprisonment with no chance of parole.
But it's not clear that abolitionist forces in Montana's legislature could succeed in rewriting the law before Smith's death sentence is carried out.
One of the key issues raised in the ACLU lawsuit — the cramped and under-equipped state of a converted trailer used for recent executions — appears to have been addressed by the completion of a new facility at the prison where Smith has been held for nearly 30 years.
"Construction of the annex to the maximum-security building at Montana State Prison was completed last week," Bob Anez, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Corrections, said Wednesday.
But other problems cited in the Smith-ACLU lawsuit, including the training of those involved in executions and protocols for administering the lethal mixture of drugs, still face scrutiny in court.
The 53-year-old Smith was convicted of killing two young Montana men — Blackfeet Nation members Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man — during a drunken hitchhiking trip to the U.S. in 1982. Smith, a Red Deer, Alta., resident who was travelling with two other Canadians at the time, shot Running Rabbit and Mad Man in the Montana woods and stole their car.
Smith initially requested to be put to death, but later changed his mind and began a long-running legal effort to avoid execution.
The ACLU-backed lawsuit describes Montana's lethal-injection system as a "cruel" and "inhumane" procedure that would violate Smith's constitutional rights.
The civil case is now the last legal avenue available to the Smith to avoid the death penalty.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of Smith's death sentence, ending decades of attempts by the Canadian's lawyers to win him a reprieve through the criminal courts.
Apart from the lethal-injection lawsuit and the potential abolition bill, Smith's only other chance of avoiding execution rests with efforts by the Canadian government to convince Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to commute the death sentence.
Canadian diplomats were pressing for clemency in 2007 when the Conservative government controversially declared an end to the lobbying and introduced a new hands-off policy toward Canadians on death row in the U.S. and other democratic countries.
But the Federal Court of Canada, ruling last year on another Smith lawsuit challenging the Canada's clemency reversal, ordered the federal government to re-launch its efforts to save the convicted killer's life, in keeping with Canada's own abolition of capital punishment in 1976.
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