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

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Smith is locked down in a maximum security cell 23 hours a day. He watches television, reads and listens to the radio. Sometimes, on the radio, he can pick up hockey games out of Calgary.

He doesn't expect to be forgiven for his crimes, he says. He understands they deserve harsh judgment, but he wants people to know that the man who committed them is already gone.

Unable to change the past, Smith has worked hard to make the future more promising. Since the dialogue with his father, he has earned his GED. He's begun taking college courses and now has the equivalent training of a paralegal. One day, circumstances permitting, he hopes to assist fellow inmates with their legal issues.

Jon Salmonson, a now-retired instructor for the education department at the Montana State Prison, taught Smith for years. In a 2011 letter to Gov. Schweitzer, he wrote that Smith's "effort and example enabled other inmates to have access to a college-level program that challenged their abilities and led them into areas of thought and competence beyond their previous experience. Ron Smith led the way."

click to enlarge Ron Waterman
  • Ron Waterman

In 2010, Smith appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for the second and final time. The appellate court again denied him. The court "unanimously agreed that the actions of his attorney in representing him at the time of his plea of guilty were deplorable, [but] because Mr. Smith voluntarily pled guilty to his offenses, he was not prejudiced by his attorney's deplorable actions."

Included in the court's decision was the following passage: "By all accounts, Smith has reformed his life. He has developed strong relationships with various members of his family and has taken advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the prison that houses him. He has expressed deep regret for his deplorable actions. However, consideration of these issues are beyond our jurisdiction in this case. Clemency claims are committed to the wisdom of the executive branch."

Greg Jackson and Don Vernay, who were assigned Smith's case when it first went to the Ninth Circuit, have worked and studied in capital law for most of their careers. Jackson says he's never seen a federal court take a measure "virtually recommending that the governor grant ... clemency."

This will be the first death-row clemency petition Schweitzer has faced. He declined to discuss Smith's case with the Independent, but he's said the decision weighs on him: "You're not talking to a governor who is jubilant about these things," he told a reporter from Canada, where there is no death penalty. "It feels like you're carrying more than the weight of an angus bull on your shoulders."

Smith isn't getting much support from the people who might be whispering in the governor's ear come May 2, the day Smith's case will be heard. On Feb. 22, 2012, the Independent received the following statement from John Doran, a communications officer with the Montana Department of Justice: "The state of Montana will file a written response opposing Ronald Allen Smith's petition for commutation of his sentence and intends to defend the strong court record upholding his original death sentences."

Then, in early April, less than a month before the hearing, Smith's attorneys received an email from the Montana Board of Pardons and Paroles containing a four-page document apparently giving the board's recommendation before the case was heard. "Smith does not meet any of the commutation criteria as outlined in the BOPP administrative rules," it said. "Smith hasn't demonstrated an extended period of exemplary performance and there doesn't appear to be any extraordinary mitigating or extenuating circumstances that would constitute the exceptional remedy such as commutation. It is recommended [that] a commutation of a sentence be denied."

The board has said the document was written by a staffer and is no more than the staffer's recommendation, standard procedure in clemency cases. The board said the email was sent in error.

If he's denied clemency, Smith's life will continue as long as it takes the state to work out the lawsuit with Ron Waterman over the protocol. The hearing in that case is scheduled for September 2012.

Live with it

On Aug. 6, 1982, Cecile Grant reported her grandchildren, Harvey and Thomas, missing. A search party went out to look for the men but came back empty-handed. Within a day, news of Fontaine and Munro's arrests reached Flathead County. Cecile Grant's Ford had been recovered, and the nature of the search changed.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Gabe Grant, uncle to Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man, was a member of the party that found the men's bodies. Though he did not return phone calls from the Independent, he described the events in a March 2012 article in the Great Falls Tribune: "We did it an organized way so we didn't miss a spot. We went all the way up to Paradise, Montana, and walked the entire road back to the reservation." The bodies were finally found on Sept. 17. "They were in a little indentation on the edge of steep side hill," he said. "There was a stream running through there."

Gabe Grant and Carol Arrow Top are two of only a few living family members with any memory of Thomas and Harvey. Arrow Top was their aunt. "They were friends, they were cousins, they were brothers," she remembers. "Harvey was a kind kid. He was a gentle person. He wanted knowledge. He asked a lot of questions."

The Running Rabbit and Mad Man families have spent the last 30 years waiting for a sclerotic justice system to provide some sort of closure. Ron Smith's case has now outlived nearly everyone who knew Harvey and Thomas, and, in a way, outlived the man who committed the crime. The children of the victims and the convicted have barely known a life without the thunderhead of the next appeal, the next court date, looming on the horizon.

Jessica Crawford was 5 when her father was murdered. Like her brother, Thomas Running Rabbit IV, she was raised by her mother and grandparents. According to Greg Jackson, there was a time when everyone in the Running Rabbit family wanted to see Smith executed. But after seeing Smith at a court hearing in Helena, Crawford, who is now in her early thirties and a mother, changed her mind.

In 2011, Crawford told the Canadian Press she feels Smith should "remain locked away." She continued, "After seeing him and seeing how real it was, I just feel it is more of a punishment for him that he just sit out his years."

She doesn't forgive Smith, she said. "I just think he should have to live with it."

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