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DEER LODGE, Montana (Reuters) - The sole Canadian on death row in the United States asked Montana's parole board for clemency on Wednesday, saying he was a changed man who felt "horrendously sorry" for murdering two young men 30 years ago on an Indian reservation.
Ronald Smith's plea came during a hearing that marked the first time the 54-year-old convicted killer, who once said he committed the murders in a drunken, drug-fueled rage because he "wanted to know what it felt like," heard directly from relatives of his victims.
A majority of the 40 witnesses who testified during the nine-hour proceeding in the western Montana town of Deer Lodge, consisted of victims' family, members of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and others who opposed commuting his sentence.
"Our boys pleaded and begged for their lives. This guy's having remorse today. Back then, nothing," said William Talks About, an uncle to both men who Smith shot in the back of the head in August 1982 -- Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man.
Both victims were in their early 20s. Smith, who was from Alberta, was 24.
The victims saw Smith and two friends hitchhiking on the reservation near Glacier National Park and offered them a ride. Smith and one of his companions forced the two victims from their car at gunpoint, marched them into the woods, and Smith shot them.
Smith was later captured in Wyoming and pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated kidnapping and two counts of deliberate homicide, and asked for the death penalty. The judge granted his request.
Smith soon changed his mind, but the courts have refused several bids by his lawyers since then to overturn the sentence, leading ultimately to Smith's clemency petition. He is currently one of just two inmates on Montana's death row and the only Canadian national awaiting execution in the United States.
The state Pardons and Parole Board said it planned to present its non-binding recommendation the week of May 21 to Governor Brian Schweitzer, who will determine whether to commute Smith's death sentence to life in prison.
Schweitzer, who has described himself as a supporter of capital punishment, said in a brief statement on Wednesday that he "will review the record of the hearing and the board's recommendation."
The Canadian government withdrew its support for Smith's clemency bid several years ago, but that decision was reversed in 2009 by Canada's Supreme Court, though the government has done little to actively lobby on Smith's behalf since then.
Supporters also described Smith as a model inmate who gave up drugs and alcohol, educated himself while incarcerated, assisted other prisoners and felt true remorse for his crime.
The condemned killer also argued that he was truly sorry, though he said he did not expect forgiveness from the victims' families.
"I've discovered today listening to them, there are not words to say. Sorry just doesn't cover it, how bad I feel ... I would stand here for months on end apologizing if I thought it would help them. They have had to live with this for 30 years. I understand completely."
Additional reporting by Lori Granis in Missoula. Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker