blood lust: more on the tories' de facto death penalty

An excellent and important column from Jeffrey Simpson.
Richard Doyle, the former editor of The Globe and Mail, had a rule. Only put the word "I" in what you are writing if something quite extraordinary happened to you. Otherwise, remember that journalists are observers, not participants in stories.

It's a sturdy, golden rule much neglected these days. But with due apologies, let me use the Doyle exception: I once spent two hours interviewing Ronald Smith, the Canadian on death row for 25 years in Montana. I interviewed him in 1998 for a book I was then writing, and never figured he would be much in the news until he was either returned to Canada or was put to death in the United States.

But Mr. Smith is in the news now. His appeals all but exhausted against the death penalty, Mr. Smith discovered last week that the Harper government won't try to help him.

Previous Canadian governments had asked for Mr. Smith's extradition to Canada to serve a life sentence for his murders of two men in 1982. The Harper government will make no such appeal.

"Murderer! Murderer!" yelled Conservative backbenchers of Mr. Smith, approving their government's announcement in the Commons.

Presumably this blood lust came from Conservative MPs who approve of the death penalty, and would like its return to Canada. Denied that possibility, they applaud its use elsewhere. Mr. Smith has therefore become a symbol of their own frustration that the deterrence they crave, the death penalty, exists there but not here.

Mr. Smith murdered two Blackfoot Indians near Glacier National Park in northern Montana on Aug. 4, 1982. Mr. Smith had a long criminal record in Canada. He had been in the U.S. only eight hours when "liquored up," in his words, he shot the two men. At trial, Mr. Smith recalled for me, he demanded the death penalty.

"I'm guilty as hell. Give me the death penalty," he told the judge. And the judge obliged.

The special room where lethal injections are administered lies adjacent to the building in which Mr. Smith has since resided at the Deer Lodge prison, about an hour west of Helena, the state capital.

But Mr. Smith had a change of heart about wanting to die. He had had a daughter who in turn had produced two children. He wanted to be near them back in Canada. So he applied for his sentence to be served in Alberta - a life sentence with no chance of parole.

When I interviewed Mr. Smith, he never denied his guilt. But he was a changed man. Even the prison officials said so. He had taken courses, kept himself in good shape, abided by all the prison rules. He had been elected president of the prisoners' counsel.

He had become, in essence, a model prisoner, even though he knew he would serve the rest of his life behind bars and might eventually wind up in the lethal injection room. The reason he wanted to keep living, he said, was to return to Canada. If that door was closed, then bring on the death penalty, he said.

"Going back to Canada is the only thing I'm looking at right now," he told me. "If I was looking at getting my death sentence commuted and staying here, I would have to give serious thought to not commuting my death sentence."

Montana officials refused Canadian entreaties to extradite Mr. Smith. Canadian officials were modestly hopeful that a former governor, Marc Racicot, might agree as his term ended. He left office without acting.

While Mr. Smith's lawyers kept using every appeal against the death penalty, Canadian officials petitioned Montana officials. They had marginal influence at best on a U.S. governor, but they were willing to keep trying. Now the Harper government won't even try.

The argument is simple: The U.S. is a democratic country. We might not like U.S. laws, but they have been democratically adopted. If murder there is met by the death penalty, so be it. That's the way the cookie crumbles.

You either oppose the death penalty, or you don't. If you oppose it, you don't want it befalling a Canadian wherever he or she is. You work to get the Canadian home, behind bars.

Unless, of course, you really favour the death penalty, but don't want to risk a debate in Canada. And you've got a bunch of hang 'em high backbenchers for whom the death penalty there is the next best thing to having it here.

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