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Amnesty Submission to Montana Parole Board for Clemency for Ronald Smith

    May 02, 2012


    March 2, 2012

    Chairman Michael E. McKee
    Montana Board of Pardons and Parole
    1002 Hollenbeck Road
    Deer Lodge, MT 59722

    RE: Ronald Allen Smith– Application For Clemency

    Dear Chairman McKee and Board members,

    We are writing with an urgent plea that you recommend clemency in the case of Ronald Allen Smith, a Canadian citizen on death row in Montana. While Amnesty International in no way condones Mr. Smith’s crimes and has the utmost sympathy for the families victimized by his actions, we nonetheless believe that there are compelling grounds for commuting his death sentence. A clemency recommendation would thus be fully consistent with international human rights standards adopted by the United States.[1]

    As you will recall, Ronald Allen Smith was one of the defendants convicted in the killings of Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit in 1982. He committed this senseless crime while heavily intoxicated and after ingesting massive doses of LSD every day for two weeks.  Following his arrest, Mr. Smith refused the prosecution’s offer of a plea agreement that would have made him eligible for parole after a term of imprisonment. In the throes of profound cognitive impairments, he pled guilty, testified against himself and actively sought a death sentence. Meanwhile, a co-defendant who admitted to actively participating in the murders accepted the plea agreement that Mr. Smith had rejected and has since been released from prison.

    Ronald Smith’s death sentence has been reversed and then reinstated three times on appeal, due to the repeated failure of Montana authorities to ensure a fair sentencing hearing. Consequently, he has endured three decades of death row confinement constantly alternating between hope and despair. Prison officials nonetheless report that his conduct has been exemplary for many years, and there is evidence from many sources that his rehabilitation is genuine.

    But for his suicidal decision to plead guilty and insist on execution, there is little doubt that Mr. Smith’s death sentence would have been reversed yet again. The most recent appellate ruling found that his trial attorney “failed to investigate Smith's mental state at the time of the crime, failed to investigate the facts surrounding the crime, and failed to discuss possible defenses with Smith,” thereby providing deficient legal representation.[2] As the judges observed, “A lawyer’s duty to fully investigate the circumstances of a crime—even when his client has admitted guilt—is especially pronounced in the death context, where consequences of the lawyer’s inaction can be particularly severe.”[3] Citing binding legal precedents, however, the court held that even this degree of grossly ineffective assistance could not result in judicial relief where the defendant was determined to plead guilty and seek the death penalty.
    Significantly, the court also stressed that:

    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.[4] 

    This unsolicited statement by a panel of senior appellate judges conveys a remarkably strong recommendation for clemency. Where the limitations imposed on appellate review prevent the courts from correcting defects in a death penalty case that would otherwise clearly warrant reversal, executive commutation is the only wise and fair course of action.

    The murders of Harvey Mad Man and Thomas Running Rabbit were senseless tragedies that can never be truly rectified, let alone by the execution of a man who is no longer the same person who admitted to committing those appalling acts. Executing Ronald Smith would simply mean the death of a man who by all accounts has spent the past 30 years seeking to improve himself and to make amends for his past conduct.  Ultimately, executing Ronald Smith will only result in yet another family facing the grief of losing a loved one to homicide, perpetuating the cycle of violence and loss that began on that fateful day in 1982.

    Amnesty International firmly believes that every execution is a denial of human dignity that cannot be reconciled with fundamental human rights standards. On those grounds alone, we believe that the death penalty must never be imposed or carried out. At the same time, we respectfully submit that the circumstances of this deeply troubling case fully warrant commutation of the death sentence as the appropriate and just response.

    We are confident that you will give your most careful consideration to the clemency petition submitted by Ronald Allen Smith, and we thank you for your attention to our request that you recommend the commutation of his death sentence.


    Alex Neve                                           Béatrice Vaugrante
    Secretary General                               Directrice Générale
    Amnesty International Canada        Amnistie international Canada francophone

    Beth Berton-Hunter,
    Media Relations,
    Amnesty International Canada
    416-363-9933, ext. 332