Board weighs killer’s life or death decision

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Convicted murderer Ronald Smith is escorted in for his May 2012 clemency hearing at Powell County District Court in Deer Lodge. Smith, of Red Deer, Alberta, was asking board members to recommend that the governor commute his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His lawyers want them to look beyond the horrific murders of two Browning cousins in 1983 in Flathead County.  

DEER LODGE — In a final attempt to stay the executioner’s hand, double murderer Ronald Smith and family members asked for clemency on Wednesday.

But relatives of the two Browning men Smith murdered nearly 30 years ago in Flathead County were just as adamant that he should be put to death.

Both sides were heard during an emotion-laden hearing Wednesday before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole in Powell County District Court in Deer Lodge.

In 1982 Smith marched Thomas Running Rabbit Jr., 20, and Harvey Mad Man Jr., 23 — cousins and members of the Blackfeet Nation — into the woods off U.S. 2 near Marias Pass and shot each in the back of the head with a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle.

The killings were part of a crime spree that stretched from Canada to California.

Smith, who is from Red Deer, Alberta, is asking board members to recommend that Gov. Brian Schweitzer commute his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Board chairman Michael McKee said the decision will hinge on whether board members conclude that Smith’s rehabilitation and remorse are genuine.

Smith spoke briefly to the families of the victims.

“It was not my intent to cause any suffering to any of you. I wish there was some way I could take it back, but I can’t. All I can do is try to move forward with my life and be a better person,” Smith said. He later added: “I’m just horrendously sorry, all I can do is apologize. I’m not asking for forgiveness.”

Smith later had the opportunity to speak more, but chose only to respond to questions from the board.

One of the questions was why there was such a difference between his pre-sentence investigation report in 1983 — in which he gave a full, detailed account of the crime while he still was seeking the death penalty — and 1995, when he claimed to have no conscious recollection of killing Harvey, and was then seeking life in prison.

“It was just the amount of alcohol that I was drinking,” Smith said. “For about a half hour leading up to the shooting I had a very vague recollection of what happened, not only the shooting, but the drive.”

Smith’s attorneys said he was able to produce more details in 1983 by talking to his accomplice about the crime.

The emotional tenor set by witnesses on behalf of Smith was matched, if not exceeded, by relatives of Running Rabbit and Mad Man, and while some restrained their tears, others wept openly as they spoke.

Among them was Thomas Running Rabbit IV, Running Rabbit’s son. He was born just two months before his father was murdered, and the hearing was the first time he had seen Smith in person.

“I remember when I was three and a half years old, I asked questions about who my dad is, and no one would tell me,” Running Rabbit said. “When I was four I realized I didn’t have a father figure.

“I asked my grandma Trina, asked my grandpa Thomas: ‘Who’s my father?’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘Will I be able to meet him someday?’ They said, ‘Yes, come with me.’ I thought for an instant I was going to meet a human being, with a voice, with a spirit — it was a gravestone, grass.”

He also had a challenge for Smith at the end of his testimony.

“I just want to tell you, Ronald Smith,” he said, pointing at Smith, “I am Thomas Running Rabbit and I do not fear you.”

An aunt, Camille Wells, said Smith is an “animal” who “does not deserve to breathe the same air.”

Tearful statements from family members led the effort by Smith’s attorneys.

Rita Duncan, Smith’s sister, read a letter he wrote to his mother shortly after her death. In the letter, he shared how she had always been his strength but never asked him to be strong for her, instead to be strong for his children and grandchildren.

“I’m going to try and be a better person for you. You were, are and always will be a drive for me to keep going,” Duncan read. “I’m so lonely without you.”

As Duncan read the letter, Smith held his face with one hand, fidgeting and wiping away tears as he was comforted by his attorneys.

Duncan explained that Smith was the pillar in their family, that since his imprisonment he has helped bring the family closer together, reforging ties long since frayed both by his crime and past trauma in the family.

Smith’s daughter, Carmen Blackburn, admitted she was angry at her father and distanced herself from him for a long time, but he never stopped trying to rebuild their relationship.

“As mad as I got and as far away as I wanted to stay ... he always asked how we were. He never ever gave up on me, never got mad,” Blackburn said, later adding, “over the years I’ve learned a lot from my dad, gained the ability to love somebody no matter what they’ve done ... I’ve also learned to take responsibility for my own mistakes.”

A private investigator and a psychologist talked about Smith’s improvements while in jail, from behavior and thought processes to education and cognitive abilities.

Montana attorney Ron Waterman discussed issues with the death penalty.

Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan came out swinging in making the state’s case for execution.

Corrigan argued that not only had the vast majority of the witnesses called and information shared by Smith’s counsel already come up in past proceedings, they were taken into account as mitigating circumstances by District Judge John Larson before he issued his 87-page ruling imposing the death penalty.

Corrigan also argued a different version of a point made by Waterman that the members of the board should not look to the date of the crime as an end but a beginning.

“It was a beginning of a continuing crime spree,” Corrigan said.

Smith, he said, killed the two men and took their car, then went to California and perpetrated an armed robbery before returning to Montana to try and get someone to help dispose of the bodies.

“The beginning [Smith] started to experience did not start until he was convicted, sentenced to death and put in jail,” Corrigan said.

Prosecutors also argued Smith was the ringleader in the crimes, and noted he overpowered a Montana jail guard in a successful escape shortly before his trial.

“Today he could be called an international terrorist. He used the weapon to kill two Americans less than 24 hours after illegally entering the country,” former Flathead County Attorney Tom Esch said.

Others at the hearing told story after story of the heartache and sorrow they had faced through the roughly monthlong search for the two victims after the murder, and how it tarnished their families’ lives to this day.

Two went so far as to suggest the stress and emotional toll directly contributed to the deaths of several family members. One of those was Carol Ann Russette, Running Rabbit’s sister.

“After my brother was murdered, everything went downhill,” Russette said, her voice shaking as she spoke through tears. “I had a brother who died of drinking, my younger brother died last year of diabetes, my stepmother had Crohn’s disease, and my dad died of cancer, but all he wanted was justice.”

While in a hospital dying (not long after burying his own wife), Russette’s father told Corrigan to make sure Smith got the death penalty. It was a story Corrigan referred to in his closing remarks.

“He said, ‘Ed, I want you to pursue the death penalty because it is the right thing to do,’” Corrigan said.

The board has 30 days to make its recommendation on clemency to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Reporter Jesse Davis may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at jdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

 

Thomas Runnig Rabbit IV confronts Ronald Smith Wednesday morning in Deer Lodge, Mont during Smith's clemency hearing. Smith killed Running Rabbit's father nearly 30 years ago in Flathead County.

 

Friends and family of Thomas Rabbit Jr. and Harvey Mad Man listen to testimony during the clemency hearing for Ronald Smith Wednesday morning in Powell County District court in Deer Lodge, Mont.. The family of two Blackfeet cousins killed by Ronald A. Smith argued the death sentence should be carried out.  

 

Convicted murderer Ronald Smith becomes emotional during his clemency hearing in Powell County District Court on Wednesday in Deer Lodge.  

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