Court Rejects Montana Death-Row Inmate’s Challenge

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A three-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a challenge by a Montana death-row inmate who sought to have his sentence changed due to ineffective counsel.

The panel agreed that Ronald A. Smith’s defense attorney should have done better, but in a 2-1 decision released Friday ruled that didn’t matter because Smith was determined to plead guilty and rejected a plea agreement.

Smith, a Canadian citizen, was 24 in 1982 when he and two buddies from Red Deer, Alberta, were hitchhiking through Montana. They robbed two men who offered them a ride, and Smith shot both men in the head along U.S. Highway 2 near Marias Pass.

Smith at first wanted to be executed and pleaded guilty to two counts of deliberate homicide, as well as two counts of aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to death in 1982. But he later changed his mind and has been fighting the sentence.

Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas and Judge M. Margaret McKeown agreed that the previous court rulings should be upheld.

“We hold that Smith’s defense attorney’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness because he failed to investigate the facts of the crime, failed to investigate Smith’s mental state at the time of the crime, and failed to discuss possible defenses before Smith pled guilty,” Thomas wrote.

But he also wrote that Smith didn’t suffer any prejudice from his lawyer’s performance because Smith was “determined and unequivocal” about his intent to plead guilty to the slayings and even rejected the plea agreement.

Greg Jackson, Smith’s current attorney, said he will ask for a rehearing before the entire Ninth Circuit Court.

Montana has two inmates on death row — Smith and William J. Gollehon — and has carried out three executions since reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s. The most recent was in 2006.

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