Jim Porter: Cold-blooded murderer claims lawyer is incompetent | SierraSun.com

Jim Porter: Cold-blooded murderer claims lawyer is incompetent

Jim Porter
Special to the Sun

Ronald Smith murdered two men, pled guilty to the crime, requested, in fact insisted, on the death penalty, and got it. Soon afterward, Smith changed his mind and requested resentencing. He was resentenced to death.

Now he is challenging his death sentences claiming his lawyer was incompetent. The time-honored and#8220;it was my lawyerand#8217;s faultand#8221; argument. Smith has been on death row for more than 27 years. The facts in this case are disturbing.

Hitchhiking murder

Smith and two friends were traveling from Canada, heading for Mexico. In Montana they met two Native Americans, Thomas Running Rabbit Jr. and Harvey Mad Man Jr. The five drank beers and played pool together. Smith had 18 beers that day. In the previous few days Smith and his buddies had been taking between 30 and 40 hits of LSD daily. Thatand#8217;s more than I take in a week.

After leaving the bar, Smith and his buddies took off hitchhiking and interestingly were picked up by Running Rabbit and Mad Man. (As the opinion called them).

After 20 minutes, Smith took them into the woods and shot Mad Man, then Running Rabbit, then stole their car. Smith was arrested in Wyoming.

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Give me the death penalty

Smith rejected a relatively lenient plea bargain offer, and in an affectless manner said he was not interested in rehabilitation, that he had no remorse, and that he had killed the two men because he always had and#8220;kind of a morbid fascination to find out what it would be like to kill somebody.and#8221; He testified he was and#8220;extremely satisfiedand#8221; with his lawyer. He demanded the death penalty. He got the death penalty. Be careful what you wish for Smith.

He appealed and 27 years later his case made it to the United States Court of Appeals.

Death penalty editorial

It took that long because this is a death penalty case. On average death penalty cases take 20-plus years to be heard and cost the taxpayers approximately $250 million each-at least in California. The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. Itand#8217;s a waste. The death penalty as implemented should be abolished.

Ineffective assistance of counsel

Smith argued his attorney was incompetent because he had failed to do any investigation, neglected to explore Smithand#8217;s drug abuse problems, failed to hire a psychiatrist, failed to interview witnesses and failed to keep Smith from entering a guilty plea, even asking to be put to death. Other than that his attorney was perfect. The Court of Appeals concluded the lawyer was incompetent.

To get off due to incompetent counsel, Smith had to prove his attorneyand#8217;s performance was not reasonable (done) and there is a reasonable possibility that, but for his counseland#8217;s unprofessional errors, the result of the criminal case would have been different. I.e. could it be argued that except for his lawyerand#8217;s shortcomings, Smith would not have plead guilty and would have insisted on going to trial?


The court upheld the conviction and death penalty noting that Smith had testified he was not impaired by drugs or alcohol when he committed the murders, further stating he was and#8220;of a cold and calculating mindand#8221; when he pulled the trigger. Smith was and#8220;calm and collectedand#8221; during the murders.

According to the Court of Appeals, Smith did not establish he was prejudiced by his ineffective attorney. Notwithstanding that Smith reformed his life in prison, his conviction and sentence was upheld.

Cruel and unusual punishment

The dissenting Justicesand#8217; argument was interesting: Smith had suffered 27 years on death row living in solitary confinement and under the constant threat of execution and#8212; the Eight Amendment has been violated and#8212; he has suffered cruel and unusual punishment.

The dissent wrote: and#8220;Specifically, a capitol (death) sentence may be imposed when it is the only way to express and#8220;societyand#8217;s moral outrage at particularly offensive conductand#8221; and functions as an effective deterrent. Where the death penalty ceases realistically to further these purposes and#8230; its imposition would then be pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purpose. A penalty with such negligible returns to the State would be patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment.and#8221;

Editorial Comment Repeat

My personal opinion on the death penalty is not as high-minded or compassionate as the dissenting justice, but when the average time on death row is over 20 years, at an average cost of $250 million per execution as noted, the death penalty makes no sense, especially in todayand#8217;s trying economy.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe, Incline Village and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governorand#8217;s appointee to the Fair Political Practices Commission and McPherson Commission, both involving election law and the Political Reform Act. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or at the firmand#8217;s website.