Should the Death Penalty Ever Be Revoked?

Ronald Smith, the only Canadian sitting on death row in the U.S., is currently awaiting his fate after pleading for his life in front of the Montana Board of Parole earlier this month.

In 1982, Smith, originally of Red Deer, Alta., shot two men in the back of the head in Montana after marching them into the woods because he wanted to know what it was like to kill, he admitted at the time (the Globe and Mail).

Ronald Smith (credit: Bill Graveland/Canadian Press).

Originally sentenced to just seven months in prison, Smith requested the death penalty, turning down a plea deal. His accomplice, Rodney Munro, accepted the deal and has been living in Canada.

But the car jacking-turned-murder has now dragged on for 30 years for the families of victims Thomas Mad Man, Jr. and Harvey Running Rabbit.

During the hearing in Deer Lodge, Mont., Thomas Running Rabbit, son of one of the victims, said, ”The decisions he made he has to pay for. He had no mercy for my [father], a person I have never met.”

An uncle, William Talks About, told the board Smith needs to be executed because “thirty years is too long” (CBC).

However, Smith has a surprisingly large amount of backers seeking his clemency, including the Canadian government, Liberal Party leader Bob Rae, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International.

Dr. Bowman Smelko, a psychologist on Smith’s case, said his mental health has improved dramatically since stepping through the prison’s doors and he has accepted responsibility for his actions. Smelko also commented that it’s common for acquitted death row inmates to commit suicide once released, but doesn’t expect this with Smith.

The media and the public (through comments on news articles and letters to the editor) seem to be struggling with the question: when is it appropriate to pardon someone sitting on death row?

The Globe and Mail argues Smith should be granted clemency not because he has changed, but because the world has in the 30 years he’s been behind bars.

Thomas Running Rabbit testifies at Smith’s clemency hearing (credit: Associated Press).

“Capital punishment is gone from nearly all other Western democracies, and so the spectacle on display at the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole this week would have been unthinkable almost anywhere else in the West,” the newspaper wrote in their May 4 editorial. “One by one, family members of the murdered ones, denied closure for decades, advocated publicly for the death of the convicted killer, while on the other side the daughter of that killer, having spent her entire life in the shadow of that death penalty, begged for her father’s life to be spared.”

Regardless of whether you agree with the death penalty or not (most of us, here in Canada, don’t regularly think about it since it’s illegal), dragging out such a sentence for decades is too hard on the victims’ families.

Smith told the media he’s looking forward to the case finally coming to an end – no matter the outcome.

“It’s got to be over. Thankfully we’ve hit this point in time where there’s no more long drawn-out waiting. We’re going to get it finished one way or the other,” Smith said. “It’s time. It would be nice to keep it going for my family’s sake, but once the decision is made — and if it goes against me — it’s over. There’s nothing else to it” (the Toronto Star).


Kim Magi covers international news stories and explains why we should care in News To Think About. Kim is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Toronto. Follow Kim @KMagi.

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