Relief is hard to come by on death row. But an attorney representing Montana State Prison inmate Ronald Smith, the only Canadian citizen facing capital punishment in the United States, says his client feels relieved after a March 4 court decision ordered the government to renew efforts in seeking clemency for Smith.
“He was happy, and very pleased that his government returned to policies it’s had for him for over 24 years,” says Helena-based attorney Greg Jackson.
The decision, handed down by Justice Robert Barnes, overturns policies instituted in November 2007 by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In a controversial decision, Harper’s cabinet advocated to deny aid in clemency cases for Canadian citizens found guilty of murder in democratic nations.
This sweeping policy change came less than two weeks after Canadian officials were quoted by several news agencies affirming their government’s desire to seek clemency for Smith from Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Also, court records show that both Smith’s attorneys and Canadian officials were in contact with Schweitzer in the days leading up to the changes.
Justice Barnes noted in his decision that the change in policy was “made quickly and without any widespread or considered consultation.” Due to this Barnes ordered Canadian officials renew efforts with Smith’s legal team immediately.
Smith has been incarcerated on death row since 1983 for a double homicide committed in 1982. At that time Smith requested execution, but soon began efforts to overturn the sentence.
Jackson says the Canadian Federal Court decision comes at a crucial time, because last year’s policy shift left those arguing on Smith’s behalf with a bleak outlook.
“We’ve never outright sought clemency because we’ve had [appeals],” Jackson says.
With those appeals running out, he says it will be good to have the weight of a nation behind their efforts.
Smith’s attorneys will argue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on April 6. Should that court not overturn Smith’s sentence, a final appeal will be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. Denied there, only Montana’s governor can prevent the execution.