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Bad News For Ronald Smith; Bid To Abolish Death Penalty Fails Again In Montana

03/13/2013 12:38 EDT | Updated 05/13/2013 05:12 EDT
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CALGARY - A proposal to abolish Montana's death penalty has failed again, a blow for Canadian Ronald Smith, a convicted murderer who has been on death row in the state for 30 years.

A bill to repeal capital punishment and replace it with a maximum sentence of life in prison was introduced in the lower house of Montana’s two-tier legislature.

But it once again didn't get past a judiciary committee which, for the fourth time in the last eight years, voted to table the bill.

The committee stalled similar proposals, which made their way through the state senate in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

The final vote from the 20-member committee was 11-9 in favour of tabling it once again.

"It's a little more difficult to figure out what the dynamics are and I still believe that there's sort of a visceral attitude about death. Someone takes a life and they think an eye for an eye," said Sen. Dave Wanzenried, a Democrat, who has sponsored the legislation in the past.

"I think it still resides in some very basic, instinct level," he told The Canadian Press.

"We've all grown up with it and until you really begin to examine it —as I did much earlier than some of my colleagues here — you tend to think, 'I know this issue and I'm not interested in knowing any more.'"

Smith, a 55-year-old originally from Red Deer, Alta., was convicted in Montana in 1983 for shooting to death two cousins, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit, while he was high on drugs and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont.

He had been taking 30 to 40 hits of LSD and consuming between 12 and 18 beers a day.

He refused a plea deal that would have seen him avoid death row and spend the rest of his life in prison instead. Three weeks later, he pleaded guilty. He asked for and was given a death sentence.

He later had a change of heart and has been on a legal roller coaster for the last 25 years. An execution date has been set five times and each time the order was overturned.

Smith still has a clemency application before Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. There is also an outstanding civil action involving the American Civil Liberties Union.

That group filed a civil lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of Smith and another death row inmate. The lawsuit argues that the lethal injection the state uses is cruel and unusual punishment and violates the right to human dignity.

A ruling by Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock last September declared the state's method of execution unconstitutional. That put all executions on hold.

Sherlock pointed to lack of training for individuals who administer the drugs and a discrepancy over whether two or three drugs should be used during executions.

He also questioned the method used to determine if an inmate is actually unconscious before receiving the lethal injection.

Sherlock indicated the state legislature needed to rejig the statutes to bring the execution protocol into line with Montana's constitution.

The state wants to bypass a requirement to get the changes approved by the legislature and Sherlock has agreed to hear arguments on that issue.

Wanzenried is still hopeful the death penalty will be abolished.

"I don't think it's hopeless. I think it's just a matter of the dynamics of the hearing," he said. "The opposition to abolition was better organized and ... it tends to be more of a partisan issue than we would like to admit and I'm not sure why that's the case."

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