DEER LODGE, Mont. — Death row convict Ronald Smith was reduced to tears Wednesday as his family begged a state clemency board to spare his life.
Smith, from Alberta, is the only Canadian on death row in the United States, convicted of murdering two aboriginal men outside this sleepy Montana town in 1982.
The first morning of the clemency hearing — Smith’s last official appeal — saw former guards and Smith’s family plead for his life, as he faces execution for the slayings of Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20.
Smith’s sister, Rita Duncan, brought the killer to tears when she spoke of their dead mom and read a letter Smith had written to her after her death, calling himself a "lousy son."
"The Ron Smith sitting before you is not even close to the Ron Smith of 29 years ago," she said.
"We’re asking for forgiveness, mercy and grace."
Smith’s laywer, Greg Jackson, said his client is a changed man.
"If we were to focus on Ronald Smith of 29 years ago, we would not be here," said Jackson.
"He has a life worth preserving."
Smith, clad in an orange jump suit and shackles, was brought into the court under armed guard.
He will plead for his own life at the end of the hearing, scheduled for two days.
He has requested time to address the three-member clemency board, who will recommend whether the death sentence be carried out or commuted – though the final decision rests with the Montana state governor.
Smith had actually asked to die after pleading guilty to shooting the two men. He killed them simply so he and two other Canadian hitchhikers could steal their car.
Another of the Canadians, Rodney Munro, was also found guilty in the murders, but was freed years ago after serving his jail sentence.
Smith, having changed his mind about wanting to die by lethal injection, has spent years pursuing every legal avenue to avoid the needle – leading up to this week.
But the pleas for Smith’s life failed to sway the family of the young men Smith executed in cold blood, who say he deserves no mercy.
"I feel disgust," said Thomas Running Rabbit IV, who was an infant when Smith shot his dad and uncle to death 30 years ago.
Speaking outside the hearing, Running Rabbit said listening to glowing reports about what a model prisoner and great grandpa Smith is upsets him.
"This guy’s been in prison for 29 years and at that point he’s institutionalized," he said.
"Let’s say you take a wild dog and raise it as a domestic animal — they still have wild in them."
Even if Smith loses his clemency appeal, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer signs the execution order, a faint hope remains.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil lawsuit in 2008, saying Smith’s execution would amount to cruel and unusual punishment — and that suit may delay any execution date indefinitely.
But actual freedom from the death sentence he’s been living under for three decades must come this week, or not at all.