30 Years Later, Will A Changed Man Get Clemency?

May 24, 2012

As the month of May began, Montana’s Board of Pardons and Parole was set to hear the clemency petition of Ronald Smith, one of the two men on Montana’s death row.  Now, the decision on whether he lives or dies rests with the Governor.

Ronald Smith committed a terrible crime back in 1982, but the passage of 30 years has seen him evolve into an utterly different person.  This was not a legal development (he is still guilty), but is the kind of human transformation that clemency was designed to recognize.  Our courts can’t commute sentences based on changes in the hearts and minds of the convicted (that’s not their role), but our executive branch – our Governors and our pardon and parole boards – can.

At the May 2 clemency hearing, the Montana parole board heard all about Ronald Smith’s transformation:  from retired prison officials, a clinical psychologist, a Catholic priest and prison educator, a former probation officer and members of the Smith family.

The psychologist said that Ronald Smith: “has demonstrated significant change in attitude, thoughts and behavior. He is what would be considered a model prisoner in the modern setting.”

A former FBI agent who had interviewed prison officials said that Smith was “uniformly described as a model inmate, respectful and respected.”

A retired prison officer said that, based on his 22 years’ experience with Ronald Smith, his preference would be to commute the death sentence not to life without parole, but to life with the possibility of parole.

The parole board, unmoved by this testimony (and perhaps having already predetermined its decision), recommended to the Governor that clemency be denied… and so the purposeless execution of a changed man 30 years after the fact may still go forward.

Or it may not.  While the parole board argued that “justice is best served” by killing Ronald Smith, the Governor may think otherwise.  And he does not have to accept the board’s recommendation.  Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer can, and should, grant clemency for Ronald Smith.