ABOUT THIS SERIES
This is the 2nd of a 2-part series examining the crimes of Montana death row inmate Ronald Allen Smith. On May 2, Smith will appear before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole to request his death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. The 1st part of the series ran in Sunday's Tribune.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1982, the Flathead County Attorney's Office was busy preparing its case against Ronald Smith, James Munro and Andre Fontaine. The 3 Canadian men were arrested in August and charged with the murders of Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit, 2 young Blackfeet men who picked up the hitchhiking Canadians near Glacier National Park.
Near the top of Marias Pass, just a couple of miles into Flathead County, Smith and Munro forced Running Rabbit and Mad Man out of their car and into the woods along the side of the highway. Smith then shot both men in the head with a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle.
Today, Smith says he is a changed man. In a February jailhouse interview with the Associated Press, Smith said that on the day of the murders he was heavily intoxicated, adding that he doesn't have a strong recollection of the men he killed. He said he has since rehabilitated himself with an education and by reconnecting with his family.
"I look back with disgust at what happened," Smith told the AP. "Regardless of the drugs and alcohol that were involved, it was obviously ridiculous events that took place. I now just recognize the foolishness of it all."
Smith's statements of contrition today stand in stark contrast with his demeanor nearly 30 years ago. According to Mad Man's and Running Rabbit's family, Smith was smug and defiant during an initial appearance in a Kalispell courtroom in 1982.
"There was about 5 of us who attended the initial arraignment," said Gabe Grant, the uncle of Mad Man and Running Rabbit. "Ronald Smith sat there and he did a stare down to us. He smirked and he smiled at us. He did everything but flip us off, just to show his disrespect for what he did."
Smith, Munro and Fontaine each were charged with 2 counts of aggravated kidnapping and 2 counts of deliberate homicide, all felonies. All 3 men initially pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Prosecutors had the stolen vehicle the 3 Canadians used to flee to California — which belonged to the grandmother of Mad Man and Running Rabbit — forensic evidence from the crime scene and the bodies of the 2 victims. Most importantly, Fontaine began cooperating with investigators shortly after his arrest.
But state prosecutors still were concerned about getting a capital murder conviction. Fontaine didn't actually witness the murders, and Smith and Munro hadn't divulged many details of the double homicide. Investigators also were unable to recover the murder weapon. There was just enough uncertainty in the case to cast a cloud of doubt over its prosecution.
On Feb. 2, 1983, the Flathead County Attorney's Office presented Smith and Munro with plea agreements. In exchange for a guilty plea to the 2 counts of deliberate homicide, the state would agree to drop the kidnapping charges and not seek the death penalty. The state would recommend Smith and Munro each receive a sentence of 110 years in prison. A change of plea hearing was scheduled for Feb. 24, 1983
Munro was the 1st to take the witness stand. During questioning by Flathead County Attorney Ted O. Lympus, Munro told the court that Smith killed Running Rabbit and Mad Man on his own. Munro admitted that he, Smith and Fontaine previously discussed killing the 2 men and stealing their car, but told the court that he didn't actually believe they would do it.
"I figured we were going to tie them up," Munro said, according to Tribune archives.
He told the court that he and Smith forced Running Rabbit and Mad Man out of the car and into the woods, and that he had been armed with a knife while Smith carried a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle. Munro said he left Smith alone in the woods with the 2 men, and then heard shots behind him.
A few hours after Munro's testimony, Smith took the witness stand. In a surprise move, Smith pleaded guilty to all charges and asked Judge Michael Keedy to impose the death penalty.
"I intended to kill them on my own before we took them into the woods," Smith told the AP. "I don't think (Munro) knew that I intended to kill them."
Smith's attorney, Gary Doran, told the court he did not approve of his client's guilty plea or his request for the death penalty. Doran also said he believed Smith was sane and did not require a psychiatric evaluation.
When Lympus asked Smith why he wanted to be put to death, Smith said he had already spent much of his life in Canadian prisons, and that after serving time for the murders in Montana his life would be over. Smith also said he heard that Native American inmates at the Montana State Prison had a "contract" out on his life, and that if he were to go there he would either be killed or would have to kill someone else.
Lympus said he still is chilled by Smith's lack of remorse during the court proceedings.
"I remember asking him — you had absolute control over these 2 boys. You had their car; you had control over them — why did you think you had to execute them both as you did?" Lympus said. "He said, 'because I wanted to know what if felt like to kill somebody.' He was absolutely remorseless."
"I was at the counsel table and he was sitting on the witness stand. I looked back at him and I said, 'Well, what did it feel like? How did it feel?'
He looked at me straight in the face and said, 'It was no big deal.'"
Lympus also questioned Smith's motives for requesting the death sentence.
"In a sense, it was like that request for the death penalty was in his character," Lympus said. "He wants to be a famous person, maybe even in his mind a hero that would be executed in Montana for his behavior. In our mind he certainly deserved it, so we accepted it."
On March 21, 1983, Smith appeared before Keedy for sentencing. The courtroom was packed and under tight security. Relatives of Smith, Mad Man and Running Rabbit were present.
According to Tribune archives, before passing sentence, Keedy said to Smith, "You have no respect for human life, including your own. You are a very dangerous person and you represent a dangerous threat to society. By your own admission, Mr. Smith, these were atrocious, cruel and inhuman acts."
Keedy then sentenced Smith to death 4 times, once for each count of deliberate homicide and aggravated kidnapping. Smith was scheduled to die by hanging at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, with his execution set for May 9, 1983.
Munro pleaded guilty to 2 counts of aggravated kidnapping and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Fontaine, who hadn't participated in the kidnapping and murder of Mad Man and Running Rabbit, received a 5-year sentence for associated crimes . Both Munro and Fontaine were extradited to Canada. According to Lympus, Munro was paroled several years ago. Neither Lympus, nor the families of Mad Man and Running Rabbit, know where Munro or Fontaine are today.
3 weeks after his sentencing hearing, Smith changed his mind about wanting the death penalty.
He asked the court to reconsider, stating his request for the death penalty was prompted by depression and mental instability caused by the conditions of his incarceration.
Smith has appealed his sentence seven times since 1983, variously arguing that Montana's method of execution is unconstitutional, that he received ineffective legal council and that a variety of mitigating circumstances warrant the commutation of his sentence.
As the final opportunities to obtain clemency approached, Smith and his family in Canada have given interviews pleading for his life.
"I kind of hope (the victim's families) would recognize I am not the same person," Smith told the AP in February. "Obviously, I committed those crimes. I am not trying to say I didn't. But I am not the same person anymore."
"I want people to know that he is not that monster — that piece of scum that people call him," Smith's sister Sandy told a Canadian newspaper. "He has taken responsibility. He has to live with what he has done every single day, and that is part of his punishment."
The Running Rabbit and Mad Man families are unmoved by Smith's claims of redemption.
"Ronald Smith made a choice — he made a decision," said Jessica Crawford, Running Rabbit's daughter. "Whether it was because of drugs or alcohol, he still made a decision. And with that decision, my dad didn't get to see my wedding. He didn't get to see his grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
"I feel jealousy toward Smith's daughter because she still gets to make a bond with her dad, but I don't," Crawford added. "That was just because of a choice Smith made on wanting to see what it felt like to kill somebody, and that's not fair."
Lympus shares the family's perspective, and points out that Smith was sentenced based on his actions in 1982, not on whatever personal growth he may have achieved over the next 30 years.
"What's relevant is what took place then and what he did then," Lympus said. "He still deserves the consequences of his behavior. I've read the stuff about Smith's family and all the hell they've gone through. Well, he brought that upon them. What about the Running Rabbit and the Mad Man families. It was a final consequence for them, and his should be likewise."
Smith will appear before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole on May 2 in Deer Lodge. He is seeking its recommendation to the governor to have his death sentence commuted to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
"We are, have always been, and will always be adamant that we want to maintain the sentence Smith asked for," Grant said. "That's whey we are asking the Montana Parole Board to make a recommendation to the governor to uphold Smith's death penalty sentence, and we're asking the governor to carry through with that death penalty."
(source: Great Falls Tribune)