DEER LODGE, Mont. - A Canadian on death row in Montana for killing two men said he is "horrendously sorry" Wednesday, but the passage of time appeared only to have steeled the resolve of the victims' families to show him no mercy.
A visibly angry Thomas Running Rabbit, son of one of the victims, said he would seek justice for the father he never knew until "Ronald Smith's last breath."
"The decisions he made he has to pay for," Running Rabbit told Smith's clemency hearing. "He had no mercy for my father — a person I have never met."
He then pointed at Smith and said: "I'm Thomas Running Rabbit. I do not fear you."
A cousin, Camille Wells, called Smith "an animal."
"He is the scum of the earth and I will hate him until the day I die."
And an uncle told the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole that 30 years was too long to wait for justice. William Talks About said the victims' mothers never got to see justice done before they died.
"Ronald Smith needs to be executed," said Talks About. "Thirty years is too long."
Smith, 54, has been on death row ever since he admitted to shooting Thomas Mad Man Jr. and Harvey Running Rabbit in 1982. He originally asked for the death penalty, but soon after changed his mind and has been fighting for his life ever since.
He is asking the board to recommend his death sentence be commuted. The board is to give its recommendation the week of May 21. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer will have the final say.
Originally from Red Deer, Alta., Smith was 24 and had been taking LSD and drinking when he and Rodney Munro marched the two men into the woods where Munro stabbed one of them and Smith shot them both in the head.
Munro accepted a plea deal, was eventually transferred to a Canadian prison and has completed his sentence.
It was a cold-blooded crime. They wanted to steal the men's car, but Smith also said at the time he wanted to know what it was like to kill someone.
Talks About said both victims were much loved by their families. They searched for them for a month after they disappeared.
"Up and down both sides of the highway," he said. "This is how much we loved our boys. This is how much we cared for them."
Earlier during the hearing, Smith faced the families and said he didn't expect them to forgive him, but hoped to be given the chance to get on with his life.
"I do understand the pain and suffering I've put you through," he said. "It was never my intent to cause any suffering for anybody. I wish there was some way I could take it back. I can't.
"All I can do is hope to move forward with my life and become a better person."
Smith broke down and cried when his sister, Rita Duncan, read a letter he had written to their mother after her death last year.
Smith covered his eyes, brushed away tears and was patted on the shoulder by his lawyer.
Duncan said although she shut Smith out of her life for years, he has always loved her and she is proud to be his sister.
"I honestly do not know what I would do without my brother by my side. I can't bear the thought of losing another brother and I'm sorry if this sounds selfish. I don't know what I would do without him," said Duncan, her voice quavering.
She asked people in the packed courtroom to put themselves in her place.
"Wouldn't you want grace and mercy to be shown to him when he's done everything in his power to change himself and become the man he is today?" she asked.
"Mercy is not about getting something that we deserve. Grace is getting something that we do not deserve, so today I am here pleading for both mercy and grace for my brother Ron."
Smith was long thought to be the only Canadian facing execution in the United States, but a Canadian connection recently emerged in another case.
Court documents say Robert Bolden, currently on death row for murdering a bank security guard in Missouri, has Canadian citizenship. He was born to a Canadian woman in Newfoundland where his father was stationed with the U.S. air force. The family moved back to the U.S. when Bolden was a young child.
Smith's daughter, Carmen Blackburn, told the hearing she didn't know the man her father was in 1982, but she knows who he has become.
"This situation is not easy on anybody involved, but I can only hope that everyone can look into their hearts and listen to the real facts about my dad, because I truly don't know what I would do without him in my life," she said, crying.
"I've seen a man who has many regrets about the things that he has done. He shows his remorse in his eyes and in his voice and every time we talk. I wish I could take away that pain."
A psychologist told the hearing that Smith is a model prisoner and poses little threat to the people around him. Dr. Bowman Smelko said Smith has shown improvement during his time in prison and his cognitive ability has jumped 16 points from low to high average.
"He was not exposed to drugs and alcohol. He was not exposed to chaos. He has demonstrated significant change in attitude, thoughts and behaviour," Smelko said.
The hearing also heard that Smith is well-liked by prison guards.
Joe Warner, who has now retired, was there the day Smith arrived at the prison 30 years ago. Over the years, he said, Smith showed him nothing but respect and he considers Smith a friend. Once a proponent of the death penalty, Warner said he now feels differently.
"I've kind of changed my mind," said Warner, who added that getting to know Smith contributed to that.
Warner drew disapproving murmurs from the families of the victims when he said he would like to see Smith eligible for parole some day.
Tom Esch, former Flathead County prosecutor, was the first state witness. He said that Smith smuggled across the border the rifle he used to kill Mad Man and Running Rabbit. Esch said doing so today would make Smith an international terrorist.
The Canadian government was supposed to be offering a new letter of support for Smith's clemency hearing. Ottawa wrote a letter last year favouring clemency, but critics say the government's support has been tepid.
Marie-Eve Lamy, a consul at the Canadian Consulate General in Denver, was going to read a statement asking the board to grant Smith clemency. Smith's lawyers were excited, but when the hearing resumed in the afternoon, Lamy was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Smith's lawyer, Don Vernay, read the letter into the record.
"We were really somewhat surprised and she said the government of Canada wants me to read this...
"Then this morning she comes up and says, 'I just heard from headquarters that they don't want me to read this.' They want her to read the original one instead."
The withdrawn letter wasn't a ringing endorsement of Smith but was considerably more positive in tone than the original one from John Baird.
After decades of appeals, the clemency hearing is Smith's last chance to make a case before the board as to why he should not be executed. Smith's lawyer Greg Jackson told the hearing that the bid for clemency isn't meant to minimize the "terrible crime" that Smith is guilty of, but "is a request for mercy."
Jackson said Smith is not the same man who killed the young men.
"He is a changed man," said Jackson. "He has reformed his life. He has expressed deep remorse and deep regret.
"He has a life that is worth preserving."
When the state asked if Smith had any comment to make about the testimony of the witnesses, he replied: "I wish there were words I could say that would help ease their pain. How do you apologize? Sorry just doesn't cover it.
"My words of sorrow don't mean anything to these people. I wish they did."