The state medical examiner’s office determined following Tuesday’s autopsy that a heart attack caused the death of accused murderer Roark David Smith in his jail cell.
A corrections officer found Smith, 53, laying facedown on the floor of his single-occupancy cell about 5 a.m., Jan. 15. Medics from Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue were called to the scene but were unable to revive Smith, who is believed to have died a short time before his body was discovered.
“The state medical examiners’ office said even if he had been found right after he fell down, it probably wouldn’t have been possible to revive him,” said Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley.
At the time of his death, Smith was being treated for diabetes and high blood pressure. Last Friday, he had a small brain tumor removed, a surgery the district attorney said was conducted without complications.
Nisley said the state medical examiner’s office determined Tuesday that the surgery on the tumor did not contribute to Smith’s death.
The defendant had been lodged in the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities in The Dalles for about one year after a judge declared him competent in late 2011 to assist in his own defense. He spent more than two years being evaluated by forensic psychologists and physiatrists at the Oregon State Hospital before that hearing took place.
Nisley said Wednesday morning that he was meeting with the family of homicide victims Patti Hong, 46, and Randy Hong, 23, later in the day to discuss the unexpected conclusion of the case.
Smith’s trial for two counts of aggravated murder and burglary had been scheduled to begin Feb. 5 and the jury selection process for the death penalty case had already begun.
“It’s too bad the Hong family and community can’t have the closure that they would have received from a trial where witnesses gave first-hand accounts about what transpired,” said Nisley.
“I do not know if the Hongs will feel that justice has been served but at least Smith has been incarcerated in one way or another since this case began and that might give them some sense of closure.”
Nisley said Smith called the 9-1-1 emergency dispatch center on Feb. 25, 2009, and confessed to fatally killing two of his neighbors with a shotgun. He then followed the directives of the dispatcher to put down the gun, which was recovered from his yard, take off his coat and wait outside for the arrival of law enforcement officials.
The district attorney said Smith had expressed concern to the dispatcher that he would be shot by police before being arrested. When law enforcement officials arrived, he was standing in the yard with his hands in the air.
Nisley said Smith was seen by a neighbor coming out of the Hong house with some type of a “long gun” right after the homicides occurred.
“To me this was a pretty straightforward case,” he said.
Smith later recanted his confession and claimed it had been made under duress because he was the victim of a plot by his ex-wife to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
Nisley said the 9-1-1 call, which would have been played for jurors, showed that Smith fully understood what he had done and could rationally and logically comply with directives. He said Smith’s actions following the killings fulfilled the statutory requirements for a defendant to be capable of standing trial.
Smith’s attorney, William Falls of Portland, had argued at every pre-trial hearing that his client was not mentally competent to assist in his own defense. The defendant had been diagnosed with delusional disorder at the state hospital but psychiatrists rendered an opinion at the 2011 hearing that the disorder was in remission.
Nisley said Falls’ assertion that law enforcement officials had failed to follow leads to a Marine veteran who had known Patti and should have been considered a suspect was without merit.
“That is a fantasy that was woven with the fabric of desperation,” he said.
He said only 10-15 percent of the cases his office handles involved defendants with mental illness. He said substance abuse is a more common contributor to criminal activity and sometimes creates mental instability.
“There are a lot of people in the world who have mental illnesses but most of them don’t commit crimes. Most are responsible people who follow their treatment recommendations and, even if they don’t, they don’t commit crimes,” he said.
Nisley said Smith’s body is being held in Portland by the medical examiner’s office and will be turned over to his family for burial by this weekend and the case will be officially dismissed.