Will Montana Recognize Redemption?

May 1, 2012

Ronald Smith, a Canadian national, is facing a clemency hearing on May 2 in Montana. He was sentenced to die for a crime committed almost 30 years ago, a crime for which he has consistently expressed remorse. He has since rebuilt his life from inside the prison walls. Putting him to death now would serve no purpose, and Montana should not do it.

One of the problems with the death penalty is that it denies the possibility that people can reform.
At the time of his arrest for his part in the August 1982 killing of two Native Americans, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit Jr., Smith wanted to take full responsibility for the crime and in fact asked for the death penalty. He got it.

His lawyer, who had never tried a death penalty case before, was no help. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that this lawyer “failed to investigate the facts of the crime, failed to investigate Smith’s mental state at the time of the crime, and failed to discuss possible defenses before Smith pled guilty.” (Bizarrely, and typically, this Court nonetheless ruled that the lawyer had not harmed his client enough to warrant any relief.)

Among other things, the lawyer’s litany of failures kept hidden the fact that, like so many men on death row, Ronald Smith was physically abused as a child and turned at a young age to a self-destructive life of drinking and drugs. One federal judge called him “semi-suicidal” at the time of his sentencing.

But that was 30 years ago. One of the problems with the death penalty is that it denies the possibility that people can reform. It denies the possibility of redemption. Ronald Smith now has a family of his own: a daughter and two grandchildren. In its 2010 ruling that rejected Smith’s last appeal, the Ninth Circuit took the unusual step of noting that, “by all accounts, Ronald Smith has reformed his life” but that such issues were not for the courts to consider but for “the wisdom of the executive branch” – hence, the clemency hearing.

Disturbingly, news reports have suggested that at the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, which makes clemency recommendations to the Governor, wisdom  may be in short supply. Leaked documents suggest that it has already made up its mind to recommend against clemency even before the hearing has taken place.

But Governor Brian Schweitzer doesn’t have to abide by the Board’s recommendation, one way or the other. Regardless of the Board’s decision after this week’s hearing, he can and should recognize the possibility, and in this case the reality, of redemption and grant clemency for Ronald Smith.