Convicted murderer Ron Smith says if it wasn’t for his family, he’d rather be executed than live out his days in prison.
“A lot of people don’t realize it, but spending life in prison isn’t a picnic,” he told the Independent. “Actually, putting someone to death may be doing them a favor. You’re taking the misery out of their life. They have no miseries when you put them down. Death is not a punishment.”
Smith, 42, is one of six men on death row at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. He’s already been spared execution three times and is working on a renewed appeal. After 17 years on and off the condemned-to-die list, he figures he’s got another few years before his options play out. Smith, a stocky Canadian with the forearms of a bull wrestler, says that if it were up to him, he’d just let the state execute him.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he says confidently of his pending date with death. “Outside of what it will do to my family, I’m not too concerned about the final outcome. It would almost be beneficial.”
The little brown trailer where his good friend Duncan McKenzie was given a lethal injection in 1995 sits just behind the prison’s maximum security unit, where Smith and the other death row inmates wait out their time. In 1998, Terry Langford was put to death in the same trailer and on the same cross-shaped table.
McKenzie and Langford were the first inmates executed in Montana since Phillip “Slim” Coleman was hanged in Missoula in 1943. Smith’s current sentiments harken to the early days of his case, when he begged District Judge Michael Keedy of Kalispell to sentence him to die. After hearing Smith plead guilty on two counts each of aggravated kidnapping and deliberate homicide for the deaths of two Blackfeet tribal members, Harvey Mad Man Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit Jr., Keedy granted the request on March 21, 1983.
At the sentencing, Smith told Keedy that on the day he and two accomplices murdered the two young men along U.S. Highway 2 near Essex, he’d had a “morbid fascination to find out what it would be like to kill somebody.” He also told the court he felt no remorse for the killings, that he considered himself a violent person, and that he felt he could kill again. He also had 16 prior criminal offenses in his court file.
“I was forcing the judge so he had no choice,” Smith says now. “I had in my mind that he was going to give me the death sentence, no matter what. I was basically trying to commit suicide with the state’s help.”
Smith says his death wish at the time was the result of a mind polluted by decades of alcohol and drug abuse. Hand-in-hand, he says, was a life that began spiraling downward before it ever had a chance to go up.
“Emotionally, I was shot,” he says of his decision to not take his case to trial. “Guilt didn’t play a small factor. I was extremely depressed, as well.” It was a poor decision to not fight the charges, Smith says now, especially considering that his two buddies, fellow Canadians Andre Fontaine and Rodney Munro, have served all their prison time and are free. He says early on in the case he was offered a 100-year sentence, which would have potentially made him eligible for parole last month. “If we’d gone to trial, I wouldn’t have gotten a death sentence,” he says. “I asked for it. I got a death sentence because I asked for it. I left that judge with no other option.”
Life on the Rocks
Ronald Allan Smith was born in Wetaskawin, Alberta, a windswept outpost between Calgary and Edmonton, on Sept. 7, 1957. His father, Nelson, roughnecked and drilled on oil rigs throughout the province. His mother, Delores, “has been everything from a secretary to a truck driver,” Smith says.
“We moved about every year,” he recalls quietly. “Every time the rigs would move, so would we. We lived in a trailer. If Dad didn’t have a truck big enough to pull it, he’d rent one. A day’s travel and we’d be in a new trailer park.”
The transient life, Smith says, was hard on the family, which also includes two brothers and two sisters.
“It was actually real difficult,” he says. “It contributed to the fact that I have a hard time developing relationships. It pretty much guaranteed me to be leaving my friends every year or so every place we went. It was disconcerting. From early childhood on, it was actually a fantasy to set down roots and stay in one place. Resentment became a big part of who I became. I developed a lot of resentment.”
Instead of speaking out and dealing with his anger, Smith says he turned within. He started drinking alcohol at age 10 and smoking pot when he was 13. The “lashing out,” he says, “came a little later.”
Smith says his father was away from home a lot with his work. When his dad was gone, he says, he often got to be the head of the household. When he returned, “I was relegated to being second class, you might say.”
When he was 13, Smith ran away from home. “I had a plan of action, but it fell through and I came back,” he explains. “I was going to Calgary to be with my aunt. When I got there, she wasn’t at the same address, so I pretty much had to go.”
About the same time, Smith began breaking into homes, rifling them for whatever money he could find and using it to buy booze. He was busted for burglary at age 15 and spent about two weeks in a juvenile detention center. He also quit school while in the ninth grade.
“Drugs and partying just became everything, and school didn’t mix,” he says.
When he was 16, the year Canadian law differentiates adult offenders from juvenile delinquents, he got caught stealing mail bags from a delivery truck and spent six months in jail. “It was just a six-month party,” he recalls. “That’s all it was. We were loaded all the time.”
Looking back, Smith says that could have been a turning point in his life if the situation had been different and there was “someone who gave a damn.”
“It was probably wrong to lock me up,” he says. “It just showed me I could do time, no problem. It also got me into some of the heavier drugs.” After his first run-ins with the law, Smith says a spell seemed to be cast over the rest of his life. The remainder of his teen years, he agrees, were “tumultuous.”
“A lot of drugs and a lot of drinking,” he says. “I was drunk all the time.”
Smith says while his parents cared about him and tried to help, they were largely occupied with trying to make a living. There wasn’t much time for parenting, and he managed to keep them appeased when they did try to intervene. “I was one of those kids who was smart enough to tell them what they wanted to hear,” he says. “You know, ‘I’ve learned my lesson,’ blah, blah, blah. They really didn’t have any idea what to do with me.
“The problem was lack of communication between me and my father,” Smith explains. “I needed more from him than he was able to give. It left an empty spot that there was no way to fill.” For most of the next decade, Smith flitted in and out of jails and prisons, usually lasting no more than a few months on the outside before he broke the law again.
“Just long enough to get saturated and then have to dry out for a while,” he says of his days away from locked doors. “It was just a downhill plunge from there.”
As Smith’s drinking intensified, so did his drug use. From cocaine to methamphetamine, to prescription pills and heroin, “I ran the full gamut,” he says. But the drug of choice “would be the hallucinogens.”
“I did all the hallucinogens, from acid to mescaline to peyote,” he recalls. Reality, already distorted, was vacated for longer and longer periods, and most of his days were spent in pool halls and taverns, whiling away time and trying to fill an emotional hole. He got money hustling pool and working at hotel front desks around Alberta.
A Road Trip To Hell
Ironically, Smith says, he was intending to clean up when he, Fontaine, and Munro took off hitchhiking from Canada on Aug. 4, 1982. When they got near the United States border, they found a place to walk over because Smith, then 25, knew he’d be turned down when U.S. officials discovered his criminal record.
“I just wanted to get the hell out of Canada,” he says. “I really needed to calm down.”
Once over the border, the trio hitched into East Glacier Park, where they started drinking and playing pool at a local bar. According to Smith, they’d already been taking “30 to 40 hits” of LSD for days on end.
“A lot of it was good dope,” he says. “We really went on a mind-bending trip. We were using an unbelievable amount of drugs. It’s amazing we found our way across the border.”
At the bar, the Canadians ran into Running Rabbit and Mad Man, cousins in their 20s. Smith says they played pool with the men, who had no inkling they’d be living only a few more hours. Smith has testified that he, Munro, and Fontaine left the bar sometime later and hitchhiked west on Highway 2. The trio, Smith says, talked about stealing a car, as well as the need for having no witnesses. About that time, Mad Man and Running Rabbit came along in their vehicle and picked the men up.
“From about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, things start to get a little fuzzy,” Smith says now.
Fuzzy or not, however, court testimony shows that when Mad Man and Running Rabbit stopped to urinate near Essex, they were ambushed by Smith and Munro. Smith, armed with a sawed-off .22-caliber pistol, and Munro, wielding a knife, marched the men into the woods. Smith shot Mad Man in the back of the head, while Munro stabbed Running Rabbit. Smith then shot Running Rabbit in the temple, killing him instantly. The senseless crimes shocked the region. Smith doesn’t deny his role in the killings. He says he doesn’t deserve pity, but that he does have remorse.
“It doesn’t matter how sorry I am or how sorry I say I am because they just say I’m playing for the court,” he explains. “It diminishes anything I would say. The families really don’t care how sorry I am. I’m almost gravely sorry for what I did. But no one’s been willing to listen to it.
“I can look at my family and I can look at their families and I can see the pain I’ve caused them,” he continues. “I completely disrupted their family. Since I don’t do drugs anymore, there’s no blanking out of it anymore. Any feelings of emotion that are there, I can’t cover them up anymore. Once I sobered up, I started actually paying attention to life.”
The Lockdown Days
A moist yet mild smell of food and feces envelops the men’s maximum security unit, where more than 70 inmates spend 23 hours each day locked inside their cells. The other hour, their “dayroom privilege,” is usually spent working out, showering, or just breaking the monotony of the rest of the day. Mercifully, inmates say, the hour out of lockdown changes every day.
Smith and the other death row prisoners—David Dawson, Doug Turner, William Gollehon, Rodney Sattler and Daniel Johnson—are always kept away from other prisoners, even in their own unit. But the five, minus Johnson, who lives in another area, can mingle together during their hour out of lockdown. For most of the time, however, they’re on their own to deal with their trails of destruction and the long road ahead.
“Outside of being separated, we’re not really treated any different than anyone else in max,” Smith says. “We’re mainly segregated because if a death row inmate kills another inmate, the prison’s liable.”
The soft-spoken Smith, one of the few death row cons who ever grants interviews, says he has various routines each day. He spends most of his time studying, watching television, listening to music, writing on his word processor, or getting exercise. He’s classified as a “Level 4” inmate because of his good behavior, a rating that allows him to have special privileges in the unit. Smith serves on the prison’s Inmate Council as the death row and maximum security representative, but he must do most of the council’s business by mail and memo because he’s not allowed to congregate with the cell block’s other residents. Later this year, Smith expects to earn his associate of arts degree in general studies through the prison’s college program, where he’s paid $1.25 a day to complete courses. He’s been at it seven years already and is still torn between going into law or getting a psychology degree.
“Once I get finished, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” he says. “I looked at the possibility of getting out someday and helping troubled children. Maybe kids who had similar circumstances I did.”
The schooling, he says, is also for personal reasons, “so the only legacy I leave behind isn’t two dead people.” But he also questions whether he’d be an effective advocate for kids, primarily because parents might be too afraid to have them work with their children.
“I look at it from the father’s point of view and the grandfather’s point of view,” he explains. “My track record isn’t really that good.”
A Change of Heart
Smith says the transition from demanding the death penalty in 1983 to deciding to fight his sentence stems from one common denominator—his family. “Once I got out of that Kalispell dungeon [after his sentencing], it gave me some time to think about them,” he says of his parents, siblings and his only daughter, who is now 24. He also has two grandchildren, ages 5 and 7.
“A lot of years have been spent thinking about how I got here,” he says. “I quit blaming people for being here. Nobody put me here but me. I used to take it out on other people.”
Even though he only sees family members an average of once a year, Smith says he talks to them at least once a month and they correspond by mail more often.
“It’s a little bit of a paradox,” he says. “I look at what I’ve already done to them. It’s almost like I’ve already put them through hell. What right did I have to do that? I don’t.
“Much of my life was centered on what was beneficial to me,” he continues. “To be a broader person, I’ve got to look beyond me. They’ve been through enough. It’s time I consider them for once.”
But even if he should win his latest appeals and his death sentence is again reversed, Smith figures he won’t likely be getting out anytime soon. He’s not even sure he wants to be free.
“If they put me out on the street, I’d have nothing coming, no job, no nothing,” he says. “I’d go out on the street and probably go on welfare. I’m probably better off here. It’s more of a punishment to live than it is to die.”
In fact, he says, getting released from prison “is more scary than anything.”
“Society has changed so much,” he admits. “I’d be completely lost out there.”
Despite the ambivalence about his future, Smith contends capital punishment “is ridiculous.”
“You keep hearing it’s a deterrent to crime, but I’d like to see the statistics,” he says. “So few people stop to think just before they kill somebody that, ‘Oh, I better not do this because I could get the death penalty.’ If it’s not a deterrent, what is it? It’s pure vengeance. The state wants to take vengeance on a certain type of people. What’s more heinous than the crime of murder? How do you classify distinctions between different types of killing? How can the state kill to say that killing is wrong?”
While feelings of regret over the murders and his own life gone bad are seared into Smith’s psyche, he also says the experience has been oddly positive, as well.
“They forced me to take a look at who I was and where I was,” he explains. “It also forced my family to take a look at how many mistakes had been made. We actually started communicating and working out the problems. ...
“For a long time,” he says, “there was a lot of guilt. It’s been a long process to explain that while the family stuff was a lot to blame, it wasn’t all of it. It wasn’t them standing out on that road that day [of the murders]. It was me. ... It’s been a slow process.”
Smith says that despite the continual threat, he doesn’t think much about being killed by the state, mainly because he knows his appeals will buy him more time.
“We’re coming down to the end,” he acknowledges. “I figure I’ve got five years max left, depending on how the courts handle it. The last six months will be crazy. That will be more noticeable, a more in-your-face sort of thing. I know it’s not close because of the court system. I don’t need to think of it.
“A lot of regrets,” he adds. “But I don’t know if I regret the last little while. There’s been a lot of growth. I don’t know if that would have happened if I’d stayed on the street.”
Smith figures his life was on a hell-bent, one-way track before he landed on death row, and now he’s got to deal with the consequences. “This was going to happen at some point,” he says of the murders. “I was just too far gone.”