POLITICS

Bad news for Ronald Smith? Montana bill to abolish death penalty fails

02/23/2015 04:56 EST | Updated 04/25/2015 05:59 EDT
CALGARY - A bill to abolish Montana's death penalty was scuttled by a tie vote Monday in the lower house of the state legislature.

The proposed law could have affected the fate of Canadian Ronald Smith, 57, one of two individuals on death row in Montana.

Republican Rep. David Moore introduced the bill which would have abolished executions and replaced them with a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

The judiciary committee in the lower house of Montana's two-tier legislature stalled bills to abolish the death penalty in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013. But last week it decided to allow this bill to be voted on by the House of Representatives.

Moore, who was optimistic that the proposed legislation would pass, said that a tie vote means the bill has failed.

"It's disappointing to get this far and to have it end in a tie and probably not for the right reasons," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"There was some passionate discussion on the house floor, but I think the reason is we had some people more worried about November elections than doing the right thing.

"I feel like I've let my northern neighbours down."

That means the matter will go on the backburner for at least 24 months since the Montana legislature only sits every two years.

Moore expects the issue will be back for public debate and he is hopeful of a different outcome.

"I would imagine it will come back again next session. I don't think this ends it."

Smith, who is originally from Red Deer, Alta., has been on death row since 1983 for fatally shooting two cousins while he was high on drugs and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont.

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

Smith had a change of heart and has been on a legal roller-coaster for decades. An execution date has been set five times and each time the order was overturned.

Moore had indicated that bringing forward the legislation wasn't about seeking leniency for death-row convicts, but about eliminating the costs of protracted legal wrangling in a death-penalty case.

Ron Waterman, a senior lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Association, testified before the judiciary committee that the death penalty is flawed and there is the risk of executing an innocent person.

He said costs also mitigate the benefits the death penalty gives a prosecutor trying to negotiate a plea bargain.

Waterman is overseeing a civil case on behalf of Smith and another death-row inmate, William Jay Gollehon.

A hearing is scheduled for July on whether new drugs being proposed by the state comply with language in execution protocol requiring an "ultra-fast-acting barbiturate.''

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