HELENA (AP) – The slaying of two caring young men in 1982 had a devastating effect on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, friends and family said Wednesday in an emotional plea to the governor not to commute the sentence of a Canadian national on death row for the slayings.
Ronald A. Smith, of Red Deer, Alberta, was sentenced to death in March 1983, seven months after he marched cousins Harvey Mad Man, 23, and Thomas Running Rabbit, 20, into the woods just off U.S. 2 near Marias Pass and shot them both in the head with a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle. They had given Smith a ride after finding him hitchhiking on Aug. 4, 1982.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer says Canadian officials have contacted him about commuting Smith’s sentence and returning him to Canada, which does not have a death penalty. A spokesman for the Consulate General of Canada in Denver did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Smith is one of two people on death row in Montana and is believed to be the only Canadian citizen on death row in the United States. Canada has long been at odds with the U.S. over its application of the death penalty to Canadian citizens.
During the nearly two-hour meeting at the Capitol Wednesday, more than 20 friends and family members of the two victims asked Schweitzer to reject any commutation request — asking the governor to see that justice is served.
Gabe Grant, the victims’ uncle, read a letter written by Running Rabbit’s parents, Thomas and Katrina. It described Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit as loving, caring young men with bright futures ahead of them.
“Words cannot describe what Ronald Smith put this family through when he decided he wanted ‘feel what it was like to kill someone,'” the letter said. “The family remembers with horror the physically, mentally and financially exhausting search they conducted as a family with the help of tribal members for months. The search ended with Thomas being found stabbed and shot in the back of the head, and Harvey shot point blank in the back of the head, both of their bodies found stashed in the forested area right past the summit.”
“This is a spot that still holds painful memories, a reminder of a loss of innocence and a sense of security of an entire family, and as a living reminder to young family members to never trust strangers who claim to want to help.”
Releasing Smith to the Canadian government would be like a “slap in the face to this community and a dagger to the heart” of the victims’ loved ones, the letter said.
Schweitzer told the family members that an appeal is still pending and the case is not at the point yet that he would have to make a decision regarding commutation. However, he said he would notify the family of any changes in the status of the case and he wouldn’t consider taking any action until hearing from them first.
Schweitzer added that he has “sworn to uphold the laws of Montana.”
“I am the governor of Montana, not the governor of Alberta,” he said. And as such, “I have a moral obligation” to think first about the Montana families involved.
Smith’s attorney, Greg Jackson of Helena, was not at the meeting but said later that his client is a changed man and would like the opportunity to meet with the victims’ families and tell them how sorry he is.
Smith requested the death penalty after pleading guilty to two counts of murder and two counts of aggravated kidnapping. He later sought a life sentence and has since exhausted nearly all of his appeals.
In Montana, commutation requests must first be filed with the state Board of Pardons and Parole. The board then conducts a public hearing and makes a recommendation to the governor.
Speaking on behalf of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, Vice Chairman Roger Running Crane told Schweitzer that Smith “should pay the ultimate penalty,” and that the entire reservation would be watching any actions he takes involving the case.
Reading a letter from the council, Running Crane said: “We will always remember their (the victims’) names, and we note with extreme alarm, there is a possibility that their murderer’s sentence may be commuted and that he be given over to Canadian officials. This letter speaks as strongly as we know how against that possibility.”
Thomas Running Rabbit’s daughter Jessica, of Browning, told Schweitzer she was so young when her father was killed that she doesn’t remember him. She tearfully listed accomplishments of family members, such as graduations, that her father didn’t get to witness because of Smith’s actions. “I don’t know if I’m for the death penalty, but I know I don’t want him to go back to Canada,” she said.
Another relative, Allan Running Rabbit of the Siksika Nation, said he drove nearly 10 hours from his home east of Calgary, Alberta, to attend the meeting with the governor.
“I can’t understand why Ronald Smith has so many rights,” he said. “It’s been 25 years. When are we going two see justice done?”
Jackson, Smith’s attorney, wasn’t aware of the meeting with the governor but said in a phone interview afterward that Smith is not the same man he used to be.
“Obviously at the time this occurred, he was a mixed up young man,” said Jackson, adding that Smith had been involved heavily with drugs for two or three years leading up to the slayings and was on drugs when they occurred.
After being arrested, Smith was coming off of drugs, he was incarcerated in a small cell in a foreign country, he was held in isolation, and he knew he had committed murder. The combination of those things made him want to die, Jackson said.
“When Ron turned down the plea offer, he did everything in his power to get the judge to execute him,” Jackson said. “The record is very clear that he made very outrageous comments in court,” including that he wanted to know what it was like to kill someone.
“He was, in essence, trying to give that judge every justification to execute him.”
Once Smith came to “his right mind” and realized what he had done, “he felt horrible about it,” Jackson said.
Smith would like the opportunity to meet with the victims’ families outside of a courtroom setting to “speak from the heart” about how badly he feels, Jackson said, adding that the families would have to instigate such a meeting.
Smith knows he destroyed the lives of the victims, their families and his own family and “holds tremendous guilt for what has occurred.”
“He did what he did, and there is no justifying it and no attempt to excuse it — nor would Ron want to do that,” Jackson said. “But he is a truly a different person than he was at the time of the offense and right after the offense. Remorseful is an inadequate word. … He is so haunted by what he did that. He is just not the cold-hearted, arrogant person that he is perceived to be.”
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