HELENA, Mont. - Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Friday told the family of a Canadian on death row that he is undecided on the inmate's request for executive clemency, at times expressing sympathy for his plight and at other times noting the desire of the victims' families for retribution.
The governor had a long, frank discussion with relatives of convicted murderer Ronald A. Smith. Schweitzer told them that his options include doing nothing with the clemency request, which seeks life in prison without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty.
Schweitzer sympathized with the plight of Smith, who is scheduled to be executed in the 1982 killings of two Blackfeet Indian men. The governor said it is not fair for Smith to be executed after an accomplice was paroled, and indicated he believes that Smith may be a different man.
But the governor said he has spoken with the victims' families, Blackfeet tribal members, who have told him they need Smith's death for closure. The governor said he remains uncertain whether Smith's death would improve the situation, and said he is not sure the traditional form of justice for the Blackfeet would include the death penalty.
"In their system of justice, when people did something very bad, they were banished," Schweitzer said.
A tribal council member has said that many in the tribe believe that if the governor gives clemency to Smith that means the governor values Native American lives less.
Schweitzer told Smith's family, from Red Deer, Alta., that he is aware of that criticism, but argued it does not have merit because he believes he has done more than past governors to include Montana's largest minority group in his administration. Still, the governor is weighing the desire of those on the reservation.
"They cannot rest until there is retribution and Ron's life is taken. They told us that," Schweitzer said.
Blackfeet tribal members and family of the victims told the Montana Parole Board earlier this year that the execution has been postponed for too long and say it is time for Smith to pay for his crimes.
The board is recommending that Schweitzer dismiss the clemency request, writing in their report that "justice is best served" by continuing with the execution. The governor makes the final call.
Smith's sister, Rita Duncan, told the governor much of the same that she and others told the parole board: Smith is a changed man who deserves to live the rest of his life behind bars. Speaking in a barely audible whisper, Duncan at times broke down in tears, as she described the impact Smith has helping the rest of his family through letters and phone calls.
Also at the meeting were Smith's dad Nelson Smith, his daughter Carmen Blackburn and her two children.
The governor told them all options remain on the table. He does not have a timetable for making a decision, but noted the best-case scenario for Smith is life behind bars.
"His sentence, one way or another, is death: slow or long," Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer also expressed anger at Smith, who originally sought the death penalty at trial before changing his mind, for putting the state of Montana in the position of aiding a suicide he once wanted.
The governor noted that the victims and others also wonder whether Smith's apparent turnabout is real.
"Are we sure that monster is gone? Is this just a mask?" Schweitzer said.
The governor said many who write or call his office think argue Smith needs to be killed.
"I keep coming back to this question of what is fair. I don't know what is fair," the governor said in the hour-long meeting.