Montana’s Governor must decide whether Ronald Smith will live or die.
Smith is from Red Deer, Alberta, a midsize city located midway between Calgary and Edmonton. He was drunk and high at the time of the murders and, the evidence would suggest, also mentally unbalanced. Initially, he turned down a plea deal that would have taken the death penalty off the table. Then he pled guilty and asked for the death penalty, telling a jury that he committed the crime because he wanted to know how it felt to kill. Ultimately, he decided he didn’t want to die after all. The case has been bouncing around in the legal system for a quarter century.
Stephen Harper, Canada’s conservative Prime Minister, had no intention of interceding on Ronald Smith’s behalf, but the Canadian courts forced his hand. Canada, like virtually every other western democracy, abolished capital punishment long ago. As in the United Kingdom, the death penalty died in Canada without much public clamor. Most Canadians supported capital punishment in 1976 (as they still do), but leading public figures didn’t think public support made the ultimate punishment moral or even an effective deterrent.
In some respects, Americans suffer from a surfeit of democracy; moral issues here are often settled by a show of hands. There is much to be said for American-style populism, but the practical result has often been the triumph of popular prejudice. Slavery endured among us long after it had been outlawed elsewhere. No one would stand up to popular opinion in the South.
Ronald Smith’s fate now lies in the hands of Montana governor, Brian Schweitzer. I don’t know much about Mr. Schweitzer, but I admire his candor. Here are a few excerpts (you can find the full Canadian Press article here):
“In some other cases I’ve met with families who have said to me we just want this to be over with. We don’t care what happens to him — whether he lives or dies. That isn’t what I heard from the families of these kids. They want what they consider to be justice.”
“You’re not talking to a governor who is jubilant about these things. It feels like you’re carrying more than the weight of an Angus bull on your shoulders.”
“Anybody who says they are absolutely sure about the death penalty is either in denial themselves or has not been paying attention. I’m not absolutely sure about the death penalty. There are very few people on the planet that have had that kind of experience. For almost everybody else it is a philosophical test because they’ll never actually be in a position where they’re involved in any way.”
“There were several calls to make sure the lines were open and then one last call at 11:56 (p.m.) to say everything is prepared at this end. The capital’s a very dark place at midnight. There’s nobody else there. I’m there by myself. It’s very quiet and the length of time from midnight until the phone rings again — while it will only be somewhere around four minutes — it could just as well be an eternity when they call to say it is done.”
I suspect Governor Schweitzer will turn a deaf ear to the Prime Minister’s half-hearted appeal for clemency. Given the prevailing consensus, it’s the smart political move. But it is reassuring to see a politician staggering under the moral and spiritual weight of the issue.