DEER LODGE – In a county courtroom here on a cold spring day, Thomas Running Rabbit IV faced for the first time the man who killed his father almost 30 years ago.
“Anything you propose, I will oppose you,” he said Wednesday, pointing at convicted killer Ronald Smith, who is asking for his death sentence to be commuted to life in prison. “Decisions he has made, he has to pay for. That’s all there is to it.
“They talk about mercy. Mercy? He had no mercy for my father. A father that I never met. … (Smith) took it upon himself to march two individuals into the woods and kill them. It’s horrible. I just want you to know, Ronald Smith, I am Thomas Running Rabbit, and I do not fear you.”
Running Rabbit, of Browning, and a dozen other relatives of his father and Harvey Mad Man Jr., who were murdered by Smith in 1982, appeared Tuesday before the state Board of Pardons and Parole to urge rejection of Smith’s request for clemency.
The board, which will make a recommendation late this month to Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Smith’s request, heard eight hours of compelling, emotional testimony from both sides.
Smith, sitting in the courtroom throughout the hearing, also addressed his victims’ family members, saying he was “horrendously sorry” for what he had done and wished that he could take it back.
“I wish there were words that I could say to help ease the pain of these people,” he said. “How do you apologize for having them go through 30 years of this kind of pain? Sorry just doesn’t cover it.”
Smith, 54, of Red Deer, Alberta, faces the death penalty for the August 1982 execution-style murders of Mad Man and Running Rabbit near Marias Pass, just outside the southern edge of Glacier National Park.
The two Browning men had met Smith and two fellow Canadians in an East Glacier Park bar earlier that day, later saw them hitchhiking along U.S. Highway 2 and gave them a ride. Smith, who said he was high on drugs and alcohol, later made the two Browning cousins stop the car, marched them into the woods and shot them. Running Rabbit was 20 years old at the time and Mad Man was 23.
Smith has exhausted his criminal appeals in state and federal courts and is asking the parole board to recommend that Schweitzer grant him clemency, commuting his sentence to life in prison without parole.
He is one of only two men on death row in Montana and is the only Canadian citizen on death row in the United States.
More than 25 reporters, including many from Canada, packed into the Powell County Courthouse in Deer Lodge, which was under heavy security both in and outside the courtroom.
Smith and his lawyers said Tuesday he’s become a changed man, a model prisoner who has expressed remorse for his crimes, received an education, and helped heal his own broken family in Alberta.
“He has by all accounts turned his life around,” said attorney Greg Jackson. “He has by all accounts brought his family together. He has gained an education. He has done this, locked up 23 hours a day, in a cell about as large as what is behind this bench.”
Yet the arguments for leniency for Smith didn’t sway the victims’ family members, who recounted the trail of devastation that his actions had left across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and among the victims’ grief-shattered relatives.
Running Rabbit’s son, who was less than two months old when his father was murdered, said he began asking questions when he was 3 years old about his father, and who he was.
“I asked my grandma and grandpa, ‘Who’s my dad? Where is he? Am I going to meet him someday?’
“They finally said, ‘Yes, come with us.’ I thought for an instant I was going to meet a human being, with a voice, and a spirit, with a handshake or a hug. It was a gravestone. … How does a child deal with that? How? I’ve been dealing with this for 29 years.”
Gabe Grant, an uncle to both victims, said the horror of the murders had contributed to the early deaths of the boys’ mothers and other family members, riven by grief.
“I think they would have lived longer if this didn’t happen,” he said. “Can you imagine if somebody takes your child, forces them into the wood, puts a gun to their head, can you imagine their fear?
“Those are the type of details … that all members of our family had to live with. The community felt that, too. When Ronald Smith and crew threw that little pebble into the lake, the ripple went wide.”
Yet prison officers and teachers who knew Smith at prison spoke highly of him, and investigators and a psychologist who examined him said he clearly was remorseful for and saddened by the crime he had committed, and the impact it had on the victims’ families and his own family.
His sister, Rita Duncan, also urged the board to grant her brother clemency, saying he had become a “pillar of our family.”
At one point, Duncan turned toward the family of the victims and said she wanted to “extend my most heartfelt condolences.”
“The Ron who is sitting before you is not even close to the Ron who committed those crimes 29 years ago,” she said.
Smith, clad in orange jail coveralls, sat impassively through much of the hearing, but cried quietly as his sister read a letter that he wrote to his late mother after she died.
Jackson said the state, which opposes clemency, has focused entirely on the crime that Smith committed. However, the question of clemency should be based on what Smith has done since the crime, and “who he is today.”
Jackson also said that recommending or granting clemency does not diminish the gravity of Smith’s crime.
“It is not my intent here today to in any way minimize the terrible crime that he committed, the terrible loss that all of (the victims’ families have) sustained and what (they’ve) been through,” he said.