Susan Smith Trial: 1995

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Susan Smith Trial: 1995

Defendant: Susan Smith
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: David Bruck and Judy Clarke
Chief Prosecutor: Tommy Pope
Judge: William Howard
Place: Union, South Carolina
Dates of Trial: July 18-28, 1995
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The notion of a mother deliberately killing her own children is particularly abhorrent, but as this trial revealed, all too often mere facts sometimes only hint at the full complexities of a tragedy.

At around 9:15 p.m. on October 25, 1994, a young mother, Susan Smith, was driving her two children home in Union, South Carolina, when she stopped at a red light. Suddenly a young black man with a gun allegedly forced his way into the car and ordered Smith to drive off. A few miles later she was thrown from the car, which then sped away, still carrying her two screaming sons, three-year-old Michael and his 14-month-old brother, Alex. Dazed and distraught, Smith ran for help.

A massive search by the authorities failed to uncover any trace of the two boys; nor did numerous television appeals by the grieving mother and her estranged husband, David, result in any answers. Then, nine days after the alleged carjacking, detectives reinterviewed Smith, at which time she recanted her original story and made a confession that she had drowned her two boys. Following her admission to the police, divers searched a nearby lake, and there, submerged just off a boat ramp, they found Smith's missing Mazda. Horrifyingly, the bodies of her two sons were strapped inside. That same day Smith was charged with first-degree murder.

On July 18, 1995, when Judge William Howard banged his gavel to call to order South Carolina's most closely watched trial in decades, solicitor Tommy Pope described the carjacking story as a fabrication, concocted by Smith to hide the fact that she had murdered her children simply because they were obstacles to an affair she was conducting.

The defense, led by David Bruck, took the position that this tragedy had really been a botched suicide attempt by an unstable woman rejected by the man she loved.

A diver for the South Carolina Wildlife Department, Steve Morrow, on the stand as a prosecution witness, described the harrowing scene of how he had found the boys' bodies. He shined his flashlight through the murky water, into the submerged vehicle and, "I was able to see a small hand against the glass." In a voice cracking with emotion, he described the car as having nose-dived into the mud, and he saw the boys' heads hanging downward in their car seats.

Lover Takes Stand

In her handwritten confession, Smith wrote, "I was in love with someone very much, but he didn't love me and never would." The man she wrote about was a graphic artist named Tom Findlay, who enthralled the court with details of a stormy relationship that came to a head on October 25, 1994.

Findlay admitted seeing Smith three times on that fateful day, and that she had been overwrought. According to the prosecution, this despair resulted from Findlay's decision to end their affair, and it was this that had driven Smith to murder. Pope produced as evidence a two-page letter from Findlay to Smith that had been recovered from the submerged car. It said, "There are some things about you which aren't suited for me, and yes, I am speaking about your children. I'm sure that your kids are good kids, but it really wouldn't matter how good they may be. The fact is, I just don't want children."

Under cross-examination, Findlay spoke compassionately about Smith. "The Susan that I know is very caring, very loving, a good friend to everyone, not just me," and he claimed they had remained on good terms even after their relationship had ended on October 15, when he had seen her kissing another man at a hot-tub party.

Key to the defense's case was Smith's dysfunctional background and its subsequent psychological impact on her. Defense witness Jenny Ward, a caseworker, told the court how, in 1989, she had investigated Smith's allegation that at the age of 15 she had been molested by her stepfather, Beverly Russell, charges that Russell had indeed admitted. "That is child sexual abuse," said Ward. "It is criminal in nature. The child said it, the perpetrator admitted itthat's a case."

Despite this, the Smith family refused to press charges against him, intimidated, Ward believed, by Russell's strong affiliations with the local Republican Party, and the matter was sealed. "That's the only order I've had sealed in 20 years," Ward said.

Her explanation of how sexual abuse in childhood, if not properly treated, can have adverse reactions in later life failed to impress Pope, who drew attention to the forceful manner in which Smith had conducted her relationship with Russell.

Ward was defiant. "I hold adults responsible for adult behavior," she said, but when pressed she was forced to admit that Smith had never appeared troubled or suicidal at the time.

Homble Choice

Was it murder or a botched suicide? Pope made his opinion very clear. In closing arguments he said, "On the night of October 25, Susan Smith made a choicea horrible, horrible choice. She chose the love of a man over the love of those boys. This case screams out for a verdict of murder." Letting go of the emergency brake was, he said, like pulling a trigger. "The intent was formed when she pulled the trigger to the car and let it drop down into the lake." Seeking to make the jury visualize the sheer terror of the victims and the wanton disregard shown by their mother he went on, "I submit those children in the car were screaming and yelling and they were calling for their father while she was running up the hill. If she truly wanted to stop the deaths of those boys she could have pulled the brake up."

"Absurd," responded Judy Clarke, who closed for the defense. "Sadness is what brings us togethernot evil. The love of Susan Smith for those two boys was unbelievable. There is no evidence of anything but absolute unconditional love.The only two people who loved her unconditionally are gone. She made that decision with a confused mind and a heart that has no hope." Clarke urged the jury to show compassion, repeating her belief that this tragedy had resulted from a failed suicide, in which case the verdict should be involuntary manslaughter.

On July 22, the jury took just two and a half hours to decide that Smith was guilty of murder.

During the penalty phase of the trial, the testimony that would decide whether Smith lived or died again concentrated on the circumstances of her troubled upbringing. The court heard how, following the suicide of her father, Smith had been lured into an intermittent sexual relationship with her stepfather. Now, for the first time, Russell appeared on the stand, to plead with the jury not to take Smith's life. Sobbing, he read aloud from a letter he had written her while she was in jail. "I want you to know you do not have all the guilt in this tragedy. My heart breaks for what I have done to you."

The jury decided that her sad past had influenced her actions, and on July 28 Smith was sentenced to life in prison. She will not be eligible for parole until 2025.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Eftimiades, Maria. Sins of the Mother. New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1995.

Peyser, Andrea. Mother Love, Deadly Love: The Susan Smith Murders. New York: Harper, 1995.

Rekers, George. Susan Smith: Victim or Murderer. Lakewood, Colo.: Glenbridge Publishers, 1996.

Smith, David with Carol Calef. Beyond All Reason: My Life with Susan Smith. New York: Pinnacle Books, 1996.