Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Federal Court to Harper: Stand up for death row inmates

The Harper government got another well deserved smack down today, when a federal court ruled that the Conservatives acted unfairly when they decided the foreign affairs department would no longer seek clemency for Ronald Allen Smith who is facing a death sentence for double murder in Montana -- even if he was convicted under accepted rules of "due process," which of course does not nor can it ever exist where capital punishment is a sentencing option in the first place.

As you may recall Harper announced back in 2007 that it would no longer offer such assistance where Canadians were on death row in "democratic" countries. The House of Commons overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution slamming the decision, one which overturned more than three decades of policy followed by Liberal and Progressive Conservative PMs.

Today's court decision does not excuse the actions of the prisoner in question, of course. Smith, on death row for 26 years, admits he did it -- hunting down two people with a sawed off shot gun.

Nor should it be seen as a license by Canadians to break American law at will.

Today's decision does say, however, that Canada made a decision to abide by certain human rights standards and it is bound to do so, no matter the religious or personal ethical views of the incumbent chief operating officer of the government. If Canada wants to end its obligations then it has to ask Parliament to withdraw from specific treaties or express reservations in certain aspects of them. It just can't do so by executive decision. More important, the government can't drop its attempts to seek clemency just because there's a change in the horse or the rider. And if we're not willing to stand up for our citizens even the most despicable of the lot in of all places the United States, then why should countries with less complimentary human rights records give our citizens fair treatment either?

One other thing: While I think Smith should get clemency -- if for no other reason than that he's actually spent more time on death row than most murderers do who haven't been condemned -- he should still spend the rest of his life in jail, and he shouldn't be allowed back into Canada to serve out his sentence, which under current rules would mean he automatically gets parole. This wasn't a crime of passion, it was killing two people in cold blood.

No one should applaud that. Let him rot away in Montana; we don't need scum like that here. Where there is no doubt whatsoever -- none at all, not even the slightest reasonable doubt -- murder one should carry life without parole. That should also apply to Canada.

UPDATE (9:19 pm, Thursday 0219 GMT): Thanks to Impolitical for her link to this post.

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Oxford County Liberals said...

You're fine up til your last paragraph Robert. That line is what a lot of Conservatives are saying about Omar Khadr. Now.. you can say there are differences - Khadr isnt convicted of anything, etc etc. But, I can't help be feeling uncomfortable with those remarks.

Anonymous said...

I expect that the government will appeal this decision to the Federal Court of Appeal, then on to the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary.

This guy is a murderer.

If a national referendum on bringing back the death penalty were held today I wonder what the result would be?

BlastFurnace said...

Scott, on the issue of Omar Khadr, it's a lot simpler: The Geneva Convention applies. He should be treated as a child soldier caught up in the middle of a firefight, and there should be a request to have him back to stand trial here, as a youth offender to prove guilt or innocence -- in my opinion, murder is a way overblown charge in that case. That Harper won't lift a finger for Khadr is incomprehensible, regardless of his mother's and sister's enthusiastic support for the 9/11 attacks.

But in the case of Mr. Smith, we're not talking about a drive by shooting or a drug deal gone bad. He was hitchhiking, overpowered the men who offered him a ride and marched them into the woods before shooting them in cold blood. I don't know how much worse than that it can get. It's hard to show compassion in a case like that. Spare his life by all means, but let him think about what he did.

Anonymous: yes, this decision will be appealed. It won't get far, though, because the Supreme Court of Canada has already made clear how it feels about the death penalty in the US in the Burns decision.

And if a referendum was held, the vote would be to keep things the way they are -- the spectre of Morin, Milgaard, Marshall, Truscott and so many others still looms large over us.

Anonymous said...

the vote would be to keep things the way they are --

I'm not so sure about that presumption BF.

BlastFurnace said...

If that's the case, Scott, then it really makes the Harper gov't look bad. My concern remains that since the maximum sentence available here is 25 to life, Smith could apply for parole as soon as he got back to Canada. If life really does mean life, on the other hand, then by all means get clemency then complete the transfer -- but keep the promise to keep him locked up here. I wouldn't want him on the streets, or even in "Club Fed."

Unfortunately, bad cases make for strange law and this is one of the worst examples to make a judgment call, but in my opinion a serious offence such as murder calls for a serious sentence. This isn't exactly possession of a single joint.

KC said...

I doubt the SCC or even the Federal Court Appellate Division would uphold this decision. People need to stop taking what one Federal Court trial judge or one Provincial Superior Court judge takes so seriously. They're pretty frequently overturned on appeal.

For what its worth I totally agree with you regarding your last paragraph. In his understandable defense of Omar Khadr, I think Scott has totally lost sight of the fact that once you leave Canadian borders you are subject to the laws and punishment of the jurisdiction you're visiting. Its one thing for Canada to request clemency, demand due process, and advocate against cruel and unusual punishment for its citizens, but no criminal convicted in accordance with due process in a foreign jurisdiction has the "right" to return to Canada to serve a Canadian-length sentence in a Canadian jail. It doesnt make you a "redkneck" to insist that people be accountable to foreign countries for their crimes on their soil.