Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 26, 2007
Church leaders decry abandonment of death row inmate
Canadian faces death by lethal injection in Montana prison
By ALICIA AMBROSIO
WCR Staff Writer
The federal government is abandoning its responsibility by failing to defend the life of an Alberta man on death row in Montana, says an official with a Canadian Church group.
"By refusing to speak up in favour of taking the death penalty off the table, the Canadian government has abrogated its moral responsibility," said James Scott of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, in an interview with the WCR.
It has been 30 years since the death penalty was abolished in Canada. However, today an Alberta man is facing death by lethal injection.
Not only has the Canadian government refused to lobby for his sentence to be commuted, but it has also distanced itself from a United Nations resolution to establish a moratorium on capital punishment.
Ronald Allen Smith, originally from Red Deer, shot and killed two men while travelling through Montana in August 1982. He was arrested, tried and sentenced in Montana.
Death penalty 'appropriate'
During his trial, Smith said he felt the death penalty was appropriate in his case. He later changed his mind, saying he asked for the death penalty out of remorse, and began trying to appeal his death sentence.
Today Smith has neared the end of his appeal options, exhausting all appeal options at the state level. His only hope lies with the Canadian government's asking for commutation of sentence or extradition to Canada. This had been done in the past for other Canadians on death row.
One year ago, federal government representatives told Smith's lawyer, Don Vernay, that it was the intention of the federal government to bring Smith home.
On Nov. 2, Public Safety Minster Stockwell Day announced the federal government would not ask for Smith's sentence to be commuted because he had been found guilty in a democratic country "that supports the rule of law."
Critics of the federal government have claimed that the Harper government may be attempting to re-open the debate on capital punishment in Canada, a claim Harper denies.
In a related policy, Canada's Supreme Court has ruled that prior to extraditing someone for a capital crime, Canada must seek assurances (except in exceptional circumstances) that the requesting state will not apply the death penalty.
The government's refusal to attempt to save Smith from the death penalty comes at a time when there is an increased desire and increased efforts to put an end to the practice of capital punishment, both within the United States and at the international level.
Within the United States several states have implemented official or unofficial moratoriums on the death penalty, due to concerns that the way it is carried out makes it cruel and unusual punishment.
On Sept. 25, the Supreme Court announced it would hear the case of Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling, both men convicted to death in Kentucky.
The men are arguing that the three-drug combination used in Kentucky and in all but one other state, can cause an excruciatingly painful death.
The first round of drugs administered is supposed to render the inmate unconscious, but in several cases has failed to do so, paralyzing the inmate instead.
The second round of drugs administered is meant to cause cardiac arrest. If the inmate is paralyzed, instead of unconscious, this can be excruciating painful.
Such an execution method would violate the eighth amendment of the American Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
Since the Supreme Court announced it would hear the Kentucky case, judges or other officials in 20 states have put pending executions on hold.
Nick of time
The most recent case is that of Mark Dean Schwab, scheduled to be put to death in Florida Nov. 15. The Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution just four hours before he was to be killed.
The state of New York declared capital punishment to be unconstitutional in 2004. The states of Illinois and New Jersey are under formal moratoriums.
On the global scene, a five million name petition was presented to the president of the United Nations General Assembly, Srgjan Kerim, Nov. 8 asking for a moratorium on capital punishment. The petition was presented by the Sant' Egidio Community, a Catholic lay community, on behalf of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
On Nov. 15, the UN's Human Rights Commission voted in favour of a resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
Despite fierce opposition from Singapore, Egypt and some Caribbean nations, the resolution was approved with 99 votes in favour, 52 opposed.
Canada was not one of the 87 nations co-sponsoring the resolution, a change from the past. Canada has, on previous occasions, co-sponsored similar resolutions.
The UN General Assembly is expected to vote on the resolution in December.
Msgr. James Reinert, an official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace points out that the resolution has "no teeth."
"The only thing that would be 'binding' would be a legal convention but even then, a state would have to become a party to that particular convention.
"A resolution in committee, brought before the General Assembly would have 'no teeth' . . . especially (since) it had been voted upon rather than being adopted by consensus," Reinert said in an email interview with the WCR.
He also said, formally, the Church does not totally rule out the use of capital punishment, and stated that some theologians feel the Church should go much further in its teaching.
While the Church's teaching does not exclude the use of capital punishment when it is the only way to protect the lives of innocent human beings, methods of deterrence that do not include ending a person's life are preferred.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Pope John Paul II's encyclical The Gospel of Life said, "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent" (n. 2267).
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church takes the fact that a growing number of nations are adopting measures to abolish the death penalty as evidence that "cases in which it is absolutely necessary to execute the offender are very rare."
Since 1976, nearly 1,100 people have been executed in the U.S. with 3,350 still on death row.
Another 231 inmates have had their death sentences commuted, included six foreign nationals.
In the same time span, over 120 condemned prisoners have been exonerated and released after new evidence revealed their innocence or major flaws in the original trial. There are currently 120 foreign nationals, from 33 different nationalities, under death sentence in the U.S.
Canada is now the only nation to have abolished the death penalty that will not lobby on behalf of its citizens facing execution in the U.S.