Thirty years after killing two men, is Ron Smith's number finally up? 

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Since embarking, the three had been drinking beer and taking LSD continuously. Court documents would later allege that on Aug. 4, Smith consumed between 12 and 18 beers and had been eating between 30 and 40 hits of LSD a day for several days.

At the bar, the men played pool and cooled off from the blacktop heat of the highway. There, they met two Montanans, Blackfeet tribal members, Thomas Running Rabbit Jr., 20, and his cousin Harvey Mad Man Jr., 23.

Later that day, the cousins were driving west on Highway 2 in a 1977 Ford LTD they'd borrowed from their grandmother. They stopped for three hitchhikers — the Canadian men they'd met in the bar.

About 20 minutes later, at mile marker 195, near the top of Marias Pass, the men stopped to relieve themselves. When they returned, Smith held his sawed-off .22. He and Munro marched Running Rabbit and Mad Man into the woods. Smith shot Mad Man in the back of the head while Munro stabbed Running Rabbit. Smith then shot Running Rabbit through his temple.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Smith, Munro and Fontaine scratched the VIN off the vehicle. Near Elmo, they found an abandoned Mazda and stole the plates. They headed for California, where Munro and Fontaine were arrested after robbing a convenience store. Smith made it to Rock Springs, Wyo., before he was apprehended on Aug. 27 and eventually charged with two counts of deliberate homicide and two counts of aggravated kidnapping.

Smith was brought back to Flathead County. On Feb. 2, 1983, the county attorney offered him a plea deal: the state would drop the kidnapping charges and not recommend the death penalty, resulting in a life sentence.

On Feb. 24, Smith rejected the deal. During the subsequent trial, Smith's public defender offered no mitigating circumstances. The attorney would later admit to spending a total of 10 hours on Smith's defense.

A month later, Smith requested the death penalty. The state obliged.

On April 11, 1983, Smith asked the court to reconsider his sentence, hoping, perhaps, the judge would acknowledge the previous plea offer. Smith was sober for the first time in years, and, after being transferred from Flathead County Jail to Montana State Prison, felt that if he could drag it out, he might be able to contact his daughter and find time to mend some of the relationships with his family.

The court upheld the sentence. Smith then appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, where the sentence was again affirmed. Then, in 1990, Smith's case went to federal court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court told Montana to re-sentence him.

In 1993, at an evidentiary hearing, Smith's new attorneys, Greg Jackson of Helena and Don Vernay, a death penalty specialist from New Mexico, presented a comprehensive defense.

In order for a murder case to become a capital case, Montana stipulates that one or more of a list of ten aggravating circumstances must be proven by the prosecution, such as that the defendant lay in wait for the victim or that the victim was a government employee. The defense typically responds with mitigating circumstances. Among the 11 mitigating circumstances presented by Jackson and Vernay were that Rodney Munro, Smith's co-defendant, who took the plea deal, was sentenced to 60 years and eventually paroled in Canada; that Smith had apologized, shown remorse and accepted responsibility for killing the men; and that Smith was mentally and emotionally disturbed when he did it. At 17, Smith was evaluated by psychologists in the Canadian criminal system. He was again evaluated at 24, after his offense, and once more, in preparation for the appeal, at 36. The tests show a 17-year-old Smith and a 36 year-old Smith are nearly identical. A 24 year-old — Smith showed a decline of 16 points on his full-scale I.Q. and 21 points on his verbal.

It wasn't enough. A Montana district court again sentenced Smith to death.

At this point, Smith had been sentenced to die three times. But he was no longer just delaying his inevitable execution. He had a new reason to live.

After the 1990 sentencing, Smith received a letter from his father. Nelson wanted Ron to know he was sorry, and that though he'd made many mistakes in his life, having a son was not one of them. A years-long correspondence ensued in which old wounds were healed and the men forged a kinship they'd never before shared.

During this time, Smith also became closer with other members of his family. His sisters began making a yearly drive from Alberta to visit him in prison. He began to believe a relationship with his daughter was possible, despite the past, despite the future.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"I keep going for my family," he says. "To be there for them, to provide as much interaction as I can, for my circumstance ... I don't want to do to them what I did to the families of the victims."

Today, Smith writes each of his family members regularly and speaks to them about once a week on the phone. He also has a relationship with his daughter. She's now 35 and has two children of her own. Smith says he writes each of his grandchildren once a week. He hasn't spoken to the Running Rabbit or Mad Man families. He says he'd like to, but he knows it would have to be on their terms. "Sorry," he says, "doesn't exactly cover it."

Thomas Running Rabbit IV was born June 21, 1982, about six weeks before his father was murdered. He was raised by his mother and grandparents. By the time he was 3 or 4, he says, his mother was remarried. When he was 6, his grandmother explained what had happened to his real father.

Running Rabbit says people should know that Smith's crime still echoes loudly in his family. "Every year, when appeals and court hearings come up, it dredges up these feelings, depression, crying," he says. "And disbelief at the court system, how this could be dragged on so long.

"I don't understand why there is even an option of clemency."

Cruel and unusual

On Sept. 10, 1943, Philip "Slim" Coleman Jr. was hanged in the Missoula County Jail. He'd been convicted of killing Carl and Roslyn Pearson and robbing them of $200 and their car. Coleman allegedly showed no remorse for his crime, even bragged about other people he'd killed back home in St. Louis. The day before his execution, he asked to be baptized into the Catholic faith. The next day, Father Henry L. Sweeny accompanied Coleman to the execution room. Coleman was the 71st man hanged in Montana since 1863. He was the ninth black man.

Montana then went 52 years without an execution, a period that saw the mechanics of capital punishment in the United States change drastically. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court came to a 5-4 decision striking down most state death penalty laws, finding them "arbitrary and capricious." The court held that the laws violated the "cruel and unusual punishment" provision of the 8th amendment. A federal moratorium ensued. Over 600 condemned inmates had their death sentences lifted.

States responded by modernizing death penalty statutes. Most adopted a bifurcated trial system: a jury trial to determine guilt or innocence and a second trial before a judge for the sentencing. States also implemented an automatic process of appeals that would boomerang all capital cases from the state to the federal level and back again. Appeased, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the moratorium in 1976.

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