To execute Susan Smith is cruel, unusual justice

January 18, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

She was about 12 years old and a student at Dundalk Middle School. I had come to talk to her class.

"What do you think should happen to Susan Smith?" she asked.

For a moment, I couldn't place the name.

"The woman who drown-ded her children," the girl said.

Oh, right, yeah, I said. Well, what do you think should happen to her?

"I think they should put her in a car and push it in the water and drown her!" she said.

Her classmates gave their vocal support.

Our society would never do such a thing, of course.

We consider drowning a cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the Constitution.

So, instead, the state of South Carolina would like to send several thousand volts of electricity through Susan Smith's body.

We do not call this cruel and unusual punishment. We call this justice.

But the result is the same.

Personally, I am having a difficult time seeing how society will be served by executing Susan Smith.

She is accused of murdering her two sons, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14-months, by strapping them into the back seat of her Mazda, driving down a boat ramp, jumping out and letting the car and the boys slip into the dark waters of John D. Long Lake near Union, S.C.

It has been reported that Smith's husband, whom she was in the process of divorcing at the time of the deaths, urged prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Monday the prosecutors did so. At Smith's arraignment Monday, the judge entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf.

So now we seek to execute a woman to satisfy the demands of her estranged husband.

Or maybe that is not the reason. Maybe we should kill Susan Smith so that when she gets out of prison she won't kill again.

But who believes she is going to kill more little boys? This was not a crime of profit or vengeance. She is not a career criminal. She is a deeply troubled, if not demented, woman.

Nor do I think killing her will deter others from killing. The vast majority of murders are not planned in advance. And most criminals never contemplate getting caught, let alone getting executed. Which is why the theory of deterrence doesn't work.

Opponents of the death penalty have long argued that it is unfairly applied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

For example: The state of California says O. J. Simpson murdered his wife and her friend in a cunning, cold-blooded, premeditated fashion.

But California does not seek the death of O. J. Simpson.

South Carolina, however, is seeking the death of Susan Smith.

What kind of person is she?

Susan Smith's father killed himself when she was 7. At age 13, Smith attempted suicide with an overdose of aspirin. At age 16, she complained to a school guidance counselor that her stepfather had sexually assaulted her. Eight months later, Smith again attempted suicide. Before the killing of her two boys, Smith was in the middle of a divorce in which she claimed her husband was having an affair. And her own lover had just dumped her in part because he did not want to raise her two sons.

In what the police say is a written confession, Smith said she was going to kill herself along with her two boys, but as the car slipped down the ramp, she jumped out. She says she was consumed with regret, but did not think she had time to save her children.

And now she must die.

According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, some 1,300 children are killed by a parent each year in this country. (About half the perpetrators are women and half are men.)

Murder convictions are rare in these cases, however. Mostly, the perpetrators are allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges.

Susan Smith now spends 23 hours each day in a maximum security cell. She is allowed out for one hour of exercise. In her cell, she reportedly spends her time talking to her dead sons and writing them letters.

But we must kill this woman.

We must kill her because she has killed.

And in so doing, the state becomes indistinguishable from the killer.

With one difference: Susan Smith may have been crazy at the time she killed.

The state has no such excuse.

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