MT: ‘I’m good to go’: Ronald Smith, Canadian on death row
Sat May 12, 2012 17:22
‘I’m good to go’: Ronald Smith, Canadian on death row in U.S. ready for any fate Jason van Rassel, Postmedia News May 12, 2012 – 7:00 AM ET | Last Updated: May 12, 2012 11:57 AM ET
DEER LODGE, Montana. — For a man who has spent nearly 30 years fighting his death sentence, Ronald Smith is surprisingly comfortable with the prospect of being executed.
As a Montana parole board weighs Smith’s bid to commute his death sentence to life in prison without parole, the double murderer from Alberta says he’s not worried about his own fate.
“Personally, I’m good to go with this thing,” he says during an interview this month inside Montana State Prison, a sprawling facility tucked in the foothills just outside Deer Lodge. “The only people that I’m concerned about if it goes the other way is my family. This is going to have a huge detrimental effect on them, and that bothers me a lot,” he said.
With only two inmates currently awaiting execution in Montana, the state doesn’t have a death row in the physical sense. Smith is confined in one of two maximum-security units on the prison grounds, a squat concrete box with only small windows to let in light from the outside.
Policy dictates death row inmates are kept in maximum security because they are seen as having “nothing to lose,” but Smith has long been considered a model prisoner.
It emerged during Smith’s clemency hearing that an official once recommended moving Smith to a lower-security cellblock until it was discovered he was facing the death penalty. Policy notwithstanding, some prison staffers say privately Smith’s track record inside doesn’t justify keeping him locked in a cell 23 hours a day.
Nevertheless, policy is strictly observed by everyone as correctional officers handcuff Smith, 54, and lead him from his upper-tier cell to a manager’s office for the interview.
Smith remains handcuffed during the visit and an officer stands watch in the doorway behind him.
“How are you doin’, Ron?” one asks Smith during the move.
“Same old, same old,” Smith answers.
The journey that landed Smith on death row in the United States began on a summer day in 1982 when he and two friends, Rod Munro and Andre Fontaine, decided to get out of Red Deer, Alta., and head south. Under the cover of night, they sneaked across the border into Montana.
The trio of drifters ended up at a bar in East Glacier Park on the Blackfeet Indian reservation, where they met Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit, who were cousins. The men then spent a friendly afternoon shooting pool and drinking beer.
The groups parted ways at the bar but met up again on the highway, where Mad Man, 23, and Running Rabbit, 19, spotted the Canadians hitchhiking and offered them a ride.
The generous gesture was met with treachery from Smith and his companions, who had discussed stealing the car.
Smith says his recollection of the murders is hazy because he was drunk and high on LSD, but in one previous account the plan was set in motion during a bathroom break at the side of a lonely highway near the Marias Pass: Smith pulled a sawed-off rifle he had smuggled across the border and Munro brandished a knife. They marched Mad Man and Running Rabbit into the dense brush, where Smith shot them both in the head.
Smith and Munro initially faced the death penalty, but prosecutors offered them both life in prison if they pleaded guilty. Munro took the deal, but Smith turned it down and asked for the death penalty.
A judge quickly granted Smith’s request, which met with little opposition from the public defender assigned to represent him.
Smith changed his mind in the weeks that followed, and has spent three decades trying to get the state to change its mind.
“I was looking at a life sentence. All I could think of is, ‘I have no interest in spending another 20 years sitting in prison,’” Smith says.
The irony isn’t lost on Smith, who chuckles and allows a brief smile to flash across his face.
“It’s a little bit odd considering how long I’ve been here, but that was the thought process: I had no interest in spending my life sitting around.”
And so, a man who asked for a death sentence because he couldn’t face the prospect of growing old in prison now seeks to live the remainder of his natural life behind bars.
It’s just one paradox in a case replete with them.
Consider Smith’s family, described by one witness as dysfunctional and “fragmented” in the years immediately following the killings. Somehow, from behind the walls of a prison hundreds of kilometres away, Smith has managed to forge positive relationships with his father, sisters, daughter and grandchildren.
Then there are the politics of the case: a Canadian government nominally opposed to capital punishment has offered only grudging support for Smith’s clemency bid. Meanwhile, a retired prison guard who worked 32 years for Smith’s jailer and would-be executioner testified he supports the clemency application and has reconsidered his support of the death penalty.
Only one thing has remained straightforward amid the legal appeals and political machinations: the unwavering desire of the victims’ families, Blackfeet tribe members and prosecutors to see Smith’s death sentence finally carried out.
“This man needs to be executed,” said William Talks About, an uncle who discovered the decomposed bodies of Mad Man and Running Rabbit after more than six weeks of searching by dozens of family members and volunteers.
“Thirty years is too long for the state and the taxpayers to be taking care of him,”
The case is now in the hands of a three-person parole panel, which has retired to weigh the evidence given by more than 30 witnesses who testified during last Wednesday’s clemency hearing at the Powell County courthouse in Deer Lodge.
The board has 30 days after the hearing to deliver a non-binding recommendation to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who will ultimately decide if Smith will be executed by lethal injection. The board has said it will announce its recommendation the week of May 21.
Smith will pass the time awaiting news about his fate the same way he has passed almost every day for nearly 30 years: spending 23 hours in his cell, with one hour a day to shower and exercise by himself in a common area.
“It’s pretty blah, actually. I work out, I write letters, I watch TV, I read when I can get the books. You fill your day up with pretty much anything you can,” he says.
For a man destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars — however long or short that may be — fantasy novels that allow him to escape, if only mentally, are frequent choices.
“I’m into the fantasy world, books that if it’s a good storyline, you can involve yourself and pretty much lose yourself,” says Smith, naming Robert Jordan as a favourite author.
Over the years, Smith finished high school and is a few credits short of a two-year associate degree. He also trained himself in paralegal work, which Smith describes as a constructive outlet for his energy.
Although Smith has no physical contact with other inmates, they can talk between their cells or send “kites” — tossed written messages that are retrieved by the recipient or someone who agrees to pass it along.
Smith says he helped clear an inmate facing institutional charges and win compensation for another whose property was lost by prison staff.
“It’s quite an uplifting feeling to be able to do that,” he says.
Above all, Smith looks forward to contact with his family in Alberta, who visit once or twice a year. In between, there are weekly phone calls.
“Short of actually being there to give them a hug, I’m there more so than you might be able to imagine. It’s still playing the big brother role, giving them a shoulder to cry on, somebody to talk to, offering advice,” he says.
Some argue Smith’s tightly controlled environment leaves little room for violence or misconduct, but a psychologist who testified on his behalf said his good behaviour is unusual among inmates facing the death penalty.
“A high number commit suicide or go insane,” said Dr. Bowman Smelko.
Over the years, the federal government had lent its voice to Smith’s cause, based on Canada’s official position to the death penalty since abolishing capital punishment in 1976.
‘I was looking at a life sentence. All I could think of is, ‘I have no interest in spending another 20 years sitting in prison’’ At one time, the former Liberal government was working to have Smith returned to Canada under a bilateral treaty that allows prisoners to finish their sentence in a Canadian institution.
That changed with the election of the Conservatives in 2006, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying that supporting clemency would send the “wrong signal” at a time when it was implementing a tough-on-crime agenda in Canada.
In 2009, the Federal Court of Canada ordered the government to continue support for Smith. Its response was a brief letter to Montana officials from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird asking them to commute Smith’s sentence but adding the Canadian government “does not sympathize with violent crime,” and the request “should not be construed as reflecting a judgment on Smith’s conduct.”
Baird’s terse missive may have complied with the letter of the ruling, but Smith and his supporters criticized the Conservatives for failing to live up to its spirit.
“It’s like a petulant child: ‘We’re being forced into this, but whatever you want to do, go ahead.’ I don’t think it benefits me, but I don’t think it really hurts me, either. We can present a good enough argument to show I’m not the same person I was 30 years ago. I think that’s going to be of more benefit than anything the Canadian government does, did or did not do,” Smith says.
The controversy flared anew at Smith’s clemency hearing, when a Canadian consular official was added to the list of defence witnesses at the last minute. The official was apparently supposed to read a new, presumably more supportive letter to the parole board, but did not testify. Smith’s lawyers allege the government once again reneged on its duty to help.
In large measure, Smith’s clemency bid rests on demonstrating what Montana law calls an “extended period of exemplary behaviour” and evidence of remorse.
Smith and his lawyers feel they have met that test, and Smith issued a direct apology to the families of Mad Man and Running Rabbit during his clemency hearing.
But the parole board will also consider the circumstances of the crime itself and the impact it had on the victims and their loved ones.
Smith killed Mad Man and Running Rabbit, but a dozen family members told the parole board the crime hastened the deaths of victims’ grandmother, their mothers and other relatives.
Running Rabbit had a young daughter and an infant son who grew up without him.
While Smith can enjoy visits with his daughter and grandchildren, all Jessica Crawford and Thomas Running Rabbit IV have left of their father is a grave marker.
“I have a great deal of jealousy toward what (Smith’s daughter) has and I don’t,” Crawford told the parole board.
“I want what she has. I want what he took.”
Smith’s lawyers also argued he was poorly represented at trial by an inexperienced and indifferent public defender.
Munro was “equally culpable,” said Don Vernay, yet the plea agreement he accepted allowed him to finish his sentence in Canada. He is now free on parole while Smith sits on death row. (Fontaine, who co-operated with investigators and didn’t have a hand in the killings, has long since finished serving the five-year sentence he received.)
Former prosecutors say Smith received fair trials, each of which ended in the same result: a death sentence.
The punishment fits the crime, and justice for Mad Man and Running Rabbit’s relatives — living and dead — dictates the death sentence is carried out, former state attorney Tom Esch told the parole board.
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