CALGARY - A life-long rancher and businessman with a reputation as a rebel in an ultra-conservative American state will probably be the one to decide the fate of the only Canadian on death row.
"I'm very difficult to pigeonhole as to what my politics are. I'm a pickup-drivin', gun-packin', meat-eatin', balance-the-budget, invest-in-education Democrat," Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said in an interview last year with The Canadian Press.
"Anybody who says they are absolutely sure about the death penalty is either in denial themselves or has not been paying attention, so I'm not absolutely sure about the death penalty.
"It feels like you're carrying more than the weight of an Angus bull on your shoulders."
After a 25-year legal roller coaster in which he has been sentenced to death time and again, Ronald Smith's last legal avenue has all but dried up. His last hope is likely to be Schweitzer.
"Let me say I am supporting the death penalty, yes. But 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," the governor said in late after Smith lost his last appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Smith was convicted in 1983 for shooting to death two cousins, Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit, while he was high on drugs and alcohol. He refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row. He asked for and was given a death sentence. But he later had a change of heart and has been fighting to save himself ever since.
"After the jury considered the evidence and listened to his testimony, and this cold-blooded killer said, 'Yup I did it' and 'I did it not because I hated those people. I wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody,' they said if there was ever a case for a death penalty in Montana this would be it," Schweitzer said.
"Since then he's apparently been somewhat of a model citizen in the prison. But of course he's in maximum security, which means he's in a room by himself 23 hours of the day and on the 24th hour they let him walk around an outside cage with shackles on his legs, so I don't know how you could be much else but a model citizen."
Schweitzer, who is in his final term as governor of Montana, got an agronomy degree from Colorado State University and a master's degree in soil science. He then spent the next seven years developing irrigation systems in Libya and the world's largest dairy farm in Saudi Arabia. After winning the state's top job, he raised some eyebrows by choosing a Republican senator as his running mate for the position of lieutenant-governor.
Canadian courts forced Stephen Harper's government to seek clemency for Smith last year after Ottawa initially balked at stepping in. Schweitzer said he has received the request from Canadian officials.
The Canadian government's request will carry some weight, he said, but so will the wishes of the victims' families. Some relatives have called for Smith's execution, but Running Rabbit's daughter told The Canadian Press she would like to see Smith live out the rest of his days.
Lawyer Greg Jackson, who has represented Smith for the last 25 years, said the timing for a request to spare his client's life couldn't get much better. A clemency hearing could come as early as this spring.
"There are always political considerations in any request for clemency, and with Schweitzer being in the last part of his second term...from that standpoint it's probably good timing," he said.
"He's been very vocal over the years about his respect for and desire for Montana to have a great relationship with Canadians. Schweitzer has been in constant contact with Canadians."
The last execution in Montana was Aug. 11, 2006. David Dawson, who had murdered three members of a family in a Billings hotel room, fired his lawyers and refused any more appeals.
Schweitzer had only been in office about 18 months then and was waiting for the final call after midnight.
"It's very quiet and the length of time from midnight until the phone rings — 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."