POLITICS
02/26/2012 06:00 EST | Updated 04/27/2012 05:12 EDT

New Montana warden prepared to carry out death sentence if that day comes

DEER LODGE, Mont. - If the only Canadian on death row in the United States is unsuccessful in his plea for mercy in May, it will likely be Leroy Kirkegard who oversees what happens next.

As the warden of Montana State Prison, it's Kirkegard role to make sure executions are carried out. There are only two inmates on death row at his institution. Double-murderer Ronald Smith, of Red Deer, Alta., is one of them.

"It is a load on my shoulders but I've made that commitment to the State of Montana when I was hired for this job. I'm prepared to carry it out," said Kirkegard, in an interview with The Canadian Press from his office in Deer Lodge.

"It's not something I'm looking forward to, but if the State of Montana says that's what we have to do, I'm prepared to do that."

Kirkegard moved to his post last November, after spending 20 years working in detention services in Las Vegas. He presides over 1,467 inmates at the federal prison, located in the middle of a 15,000 hectare ranch six kilometres west of Deer Lodge.

Smith is one of the most high-profile.

He was sent to death row for the 1982 shootings of Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man Jr. near East Glacier, Mont.

Smith and his buddies were on a drug-addled road trip through the U.S. The killings were cold blooded. Smith asked for and received the death penalty after pleading guilty. He later changed his mind, but his legal appeals have run out.

A clemency hearing is scheduled in Deer Lodge for May 2 and 3 before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, which will make a recommendation to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

It is Schweitzer that ultimately decides if Smith spends the rest of his life behind bars or dies. It is Kirkegard's burden to carry out the governor's wishes.

"There's nothing fun about it," said Kirkegard.

He knew what he was signing on for when he took the job. But he acknowledges he still needs to do a bit of homework.

"I'm going to be very honest with you. We have a very big manual, the execution protocol, and I haven't got all the way through it yet. And my role is to supervise the entire procedure from 45 days prior until it actually happens," said Kirkegard.

"It's a lot of teamwork, it's a lot of co-ordinating activity and, as far as my day to day and hour to hour, minute to minute duties, I can't tell you what they're going to be at this point."

There have been 74 people executed in Montana since 1863, and three have been killed by lethal injection since 1995. The last execution occurred in August 2006.

The warden said he doesn't have strong views on the death penalty and, in the end, it wouldn't matter if he did.

"It's something I will have to deal with and I'll deal with it at the time."