Just outside Union, a town of 10,000 nestled amid the rolling hills of north-central South Carolina, is John D. Long Lake, where Michael and Alex Smith drowned. By her own admission, the boys’ mother, Susan Smith, let her burgundy Mazda Protege roll down a boat ramp into the lake’s murky waters last Oct. 25—with Michael, 3, and Alex, aged 14 months, strapped into their car seats. Last week, as Smith stood trial for murder in a Union courtroom, an impromptu shrine had arisen on the shores of the lake. A faded photograph of the boys in their tiny denim overalls sat among teddy bears, crosses, children’s books—;Jesus Loves Me and Puppy Says 1-2-3— and notes expressing the love and anger of the hordes of visitors. Among the tourists was Louie Simms, a retired utility company worker who drove the two hours from Charlotte, N.C. “I can’t help but cry every time I come down here,” said Simms. “I don’t think I’m angry to the point where I think she should be put to death, but I think she should pay.”
Just how much Susan Smith should pay was the focus of a trial that ripped the veneer of normalcy off the southern town. In deeply religious Union, Smith’s tale of adultery and murder has tested the community’s sense of Christian charity. For Smith, even more is at stake. Because the 23-year-old secretary refused to enter a plea, the court recorded a not guilty plea on her behalf. But over the weekend, after deliberating for just 2lk hours, the jury of nine men and three women pronounced her guilty of first-degree murder.
This week, the jurors were to retire again to consider whether she should face execution or life in prison—a decision that would likely hinge on testimony about her state of mind at the time of the killings.
Beyond that question, there was little dispute about the facts. For nine days after the boys drowned, Smith stuck to her story that an armed black man had accosted her, stealing her car with the children inside. Afterward, Smith and her then-husband, David, appeared on national television, pleading for the boys’ lives. But finally, Susan Smith broke down and confessed to police.
According to the prosecution, the boys’ murder was the result of a cold, calculated decision. Smith, they alleged, was distraught over being jilted by Tom Findlay, a wealthy graphic designer with whom she had been having an affair since December, 1993. Findlay broke off the relationship in a letter that Smith received on Oct. 18. ‘There are some things about you that aren’t suited for me,” the letter reads, “and yes, I am speaking about your children.” The prosecution alleged that Smith, intent on getting Findlay back, concocted a scheme to remove the only stumbling blocks to life with her lover— namely, Alex and Michael.
Findlay’s testimony, however, seemed to bely the prosecution’s depiction of Smith as a scheming adulteress. As Smith sat stonefaced in the dock, Findlay, a slightly balding 28-year-old, described her as “very loving, very caring—a good friend to everyone.” He said that he had three conversations with her
on the day of the murders. The first time, she told him that David Smith had threatened to tell people that she had had sex with her stepfather, Beverly Russell, and with Findlay’s father, Cary, who was also her boss. Later, she told the younger Findlay that she may never see him again. “It seemed very clear she was suicidal,” he testified.
That statement may well have played into the hands of Smith’s defence team, led by David Bruck, a Montreal-born lawyer and a staunch opponent of the death penalty, though not contesting Smith’s responsibility, the defence attempted to mitigate her guilt— and keep her out of the electric chair—by focusing on her history of sexual abuse and mental instability. According to the defence, the boys died in a failed suicide attempt by Smith, who had driven to the lake intending to die with her children. “She believed the t; children should go with her, but the body I wills to live,” said Smith lawyer Judy Clarke. “ “Once the car began rolling, those children 9 were lost and Susan’s life was lost.”
In the defence’s version of events, Smith’s life was marred by tragedy. Her father committed suicide when she was only 6. Her stepfather, Russell, a prominent state Republican and member of the conservative morality group the Christian Coalition, molested her when she was a teenager. And Smith, whose depression is now being treated with Prozac, had attempted suicide before, once in 1985 and again in 1989—albeit only by taking a small dose of aspirin.
Surprisingly, given the nature of her crime, sympathy for Smith now rivals anger among people in the area. Part of that switch can be ascribed to outrage at David Smith— seen as capitalizing on tragedy with his book, Beyond All Reason: My Life with Susan Smith, for which he netted a $27,000 advance. But there was also a growing sense last week that Smith simply “snapped,” as the defence maintained. “Everybody can make a mistake in life,” said Jessie Carter, a camp counsellor at Mount Sinai Baptist, a black church in nearby Spartanburg, who brought a busload of children to John D. Long Lake. Sympathy has come from even more unlikely sources. FBI agent Carol Allison testified last week that she wept after reading Smith’s confession. At one point, Allison recalled, Smith “asked me if I thought God would forgive her. I said, Tes.’ ”
God and redemption—they are recurring themes in the story of Susan Smith. In her signed confession, Smith wrote she is confident her children are with “our Heavenly Father” and safe from further harm. “As a mom,” she added, “that means more than words could ever say.” As for herself, she was remarkably optimistic: “I have put my total faith in God and he will take care of me.” For the here and now, though, Susan Smith’s fate rested in the hands of 12 very human beings.
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