Exclusive interview with death sentence judge

In 1983, Montana Flathead County Judge Michael H. Keedy sentenced Canadian Ronald A. Smith to death for the murder of two young men, Thomas Running Rabbit, Jr. and Harvey Mad Man, Jr. Various appeal courts overturned the original sentence, but after each re-sentence hearing in 1984, 1992, and 1995, Smith was again sentenced to death.

On May 2 and 3 of this year, Smith’s lawyers will ask the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole for a recommendation to commute Smith’s sentence. The board will make a report that will go to Montana governor Brian Schweitzer.

In 1984, I drove to Kalispell, Montana from Calgary and interviewed Judge Keedy. Today, Mr. Keedy has given up his judicial title and now works fulltime for the New Mexico Public Defenders Office.

Perhaps, most astonishing is his recollection of the involvement by the Canadian government, or lack thereof.

Here is our interview, which was conducted today by email:

Michael H. Keedy photo from Henning, Keedy & Lee website.GrizzlyLaw.com

MHK: You ask about Ronald Allen Smith, and his current bid for executive clemency. I doubt that my impressions of his case are of much consequence now, more than thirty years after Thomas Running Rabbit, Jr. and Harvey Mad Man, Jr. lost their lives, but I’m certainly glad to answer your questions, as ever. By my reckoning, it has been at least twenty-five years since my court had jurisdiction over the case.

Lockeblog: At the US Court of Appeal, Ninth Circuit, Judge Betty B. Fletcher said the following:

“Guilty pleas must be knowing and voluntary. Smith’s fateful decision to plead guilty and seek the death penalty was neither. At the time of the arraignment, he was deeply depressed because he had been in solitary confinement for some time and subjected to harsh living conditions. He had received deaths threats from Native American inmates and believed that he would be killed in prison. Most importantly, his attorney was manifestly ineffective…”

What do you say to her opinion?

MHK: First, with respect to the dissenting opinion from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, I can only reaffirm my clear-cut conclusion that Mr. Smith’s guilty pleas (in 1983) were knowing, intelligent and voluntary. You’ll recall, probably, that Mr. Smith had his own reasons for soliciting the death penalty at the time, but none of those reasons interfered with the clarity and conclusiveness of his decision-making. If I recall correctly, Mr. Smith’s requests to be found guilty then executed were tendered to the court despite his lawyer’s contrary advice, and his rationale for them was reviewed carefully and in detail by the prosecution, Mr. Smith’s counsel, and by my court. With all due respect for Judge Fletcher and her opinion, therefore, I find no basis for her belief that Mr. Smith would not have pleaded guilty if Mr. Gary G. Doran, his lawyer, had advised him “properly.”

In fact, and as the record will confirm, Mr. Smith later changed his mind about soliciting the death penalty. At a followup hearing, conducted at his request, Mr. Smith was given the opportunity to explain the evolution of his thinking, his strategic reasons for having testified as he did at first, and the newfound bases for his wish to be spared. He also had the benefit of a full-scale psychological evaluation, conducted at his request and presented to the court by his attorney. All of the facts and circumstances surrounding Mr. Smith’s crimes were known, and considered by the court, in determining that the “aggravating factors” supporting the death penalty outweighed any “mitigating factors,” which might have militated against it. As noted in the majority opinion from the Ninth Circuit, I found Mr. Smith’s initial, stated desire to be put to death “nothing more than a curious element”; so it was with his later change of thinking, given the voluntary nature of his pleas and the overwhelming support for them in the record. Finally, and perhaps most telling of all: Even upon further review and reflection, when his desire for mercy was brought to the court’s attention, at no time did Mr. Smith ask that his guilty pleas be withdrawn. Nothing of which I am aware, of record or outside the record, suggests that Mr. Smith did not commit the crimes of which he was found guilty, or that he was less than fully committed to being found guilty, short of trial.

Lockeblog: There is no doubt that Smith’s murder of two young Montana men was horrible. Do you think he should be executed currently?

MHK: The law of the state in which Mr. Smith murdered two young men provided for the death penalty under such circumstances. The sentence Mr. Smith received three decades ago has not been carried out, largely if not exclusively on account of his resistance to it. Meanwhile, presumably, the family and friends of his victims have waited, patiently and quite possibly in excruciating pain, while this grotesque and interminable case has continued to play out, over and again in one court or another, ad infinitum. If there were compelling reasons, in 1983, that Mr. Smith should be executed for his crimes, the passage of time since then has not erased them.

Lockeblog: Do you have any recollection of the Government of Canada’s involvement in this case from the early stages? And if so, what do you remember?

MHK: As far as I can recall, the Canadian government took no role in Mr. Smith’s case in the “early stages,” as you say, or even for a number of years thereafter.


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2 Responses to “Exclusive interview with death sentence judge”

  1. Let us repatriate Ron Smith | Lockeblog Says:

    […] The story below is an indication of just how careless the American system of justice can be. In the case of Smith, he has not received the benefit of Canada’s proper assistance since he was first arrested, approximately 30 years ago. An interview I conducted with former Judge Michael Keedy, who originally sentenced Smith to death, indicates that Canada has abdicated its responsibility. That interview can be read here. […]

  2. Harper Government sentences man to death « Lockeblog Says:

    […] Lockeblog © Jack Locke 2010. All rights reserved. « Exclusive interview with death sentence judge […]

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