CALGARY, Alberta – After 30 years of silence while Ronald Smith sat on death row in Montana, his family is finally speaking out with an impassioned plea that his life be spared.
Smith, who was from Red Deer, Alberta, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1982 murders of Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man near East Glacier, Mont.
Smith and an accomplice were hitchhiking when the victims offered them a ride. The group partied for a while and then Smith and the other man, both high on drugs and alcohol, marched Running Rabbit and Mad Man into the woods and shot them in the head so they could steal the car.
Smith originally requested the death penalty but later changed his mind and has been fighting a battle ever since to simply live out his days at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
But an application for clemency has now been filed with the final decision on whether he lives or dies ending up in the hands of Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
“I had said to my father that I thought it was time to maybe step forward and I haven’t seen that much protection come out of my father in a very long time. He told me no,” his daughter Joan told The Canadian Press in a tearful interview.
“I told him that he was my family and I was willing to do anything to help save him. I don’t want to lose him. That’s why I made the decision,” she said softly.
Joan was 5 years old when her father went to prison. She had been living with her mother and remembers a loving father who would flip her up in the air. Now 35 with two children of her own, she has come to know a man who is gentle and supportive.
She said she wasn’t even a teenager when she learned what Smith had been convicted of, and it created a lot of emotional trauma.
“For a long time I blamed myself because I wasn’t a bigger part of his life,” she said, weeping. “I used to think if my mom had let me have contact with him more that maybe it wouldn’t have happened. I was angry with him for a while because I thought, ‘how dare you — you have me.'”
Smith’s sister Sandy had just finished high school when he was convicted.
She said the entire family was ostracized because of what had happened. She moved away from Red Deer soon after and said anger and the shame of what Ron had done kept her from contacting him for 16 years.
She said he had always been their protector from an abusive father and someone she could always count on.
“It was very hard on me to fathom what he had done and I felt I just had to take myself away from the situation for a while, which wasn’t fair to him,” Sandy said from her home in northern Alberta.
“I decided I would never step away from him again but he understood,” she sighed.
A clemency hearing will likely be held this spring. The board of pardons and paroles will make a recommendation but it will be the governor that has to make the tough decision.
“I want people to know that he is not that monster — that piece of scum that people call him. He has taken responsibility. He has to live with what he has done every single day and that is part of the punishment,” Sandy said.
“This could happen in any family and I want people to know he is real. He is loved and he is so remorseful. I think the governor is in quite the position. I would just hope that he could see Ronald is a changed man and the devastation of Ron’s death to so many people will be so hard.”
Sandy still has the last gift Ron ever gave her — a pair of heart shaped earrings that she received on Christmas Day 1978.
She would like to give him one special gift of her own.
“When I visit we are always behind glass. Touching isn’t allowed but more than anything I wish I could give him a hug.”
Joan isn’t sure she will go to the clemency hearing but hopes Schweitzer will hear her plea.
“I want to let people know that the man I know is not the man that everybody thinks he is. I would like him to look at my Dad and see how much he’s changed and how remorseful. I go to him for everything — good and bad. He’s the one I go to for advice.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.