The Death Penalty and Susan Smith

January 23, 1995

For nine days Susan Smith captured the sympathy of her neighbors in Union, S.C., and the attention of much of the country with her tearful, televised pleas for her children's safe return. Townspeople put up yellow ribbons as signs of hope that Ms. Smith's little boys, ages 3 and 14 months, might be released unharmed by the carjacker she claimed had abducted them.

But when Ms. Smith confessed under police questioning to having killed the children herself by drowning them in the family car, the town turned against her. Many residents said they felt shock and betrayal. Now the town is again in turmoil over prosecutor Tommy Pope's decision to seek the death penalty for Ms. Smith. Her family gathered on the courthouse steps to plead for her life even as an uncle of her estranged husband, Doug Smith, was telling reporters the children's father approved the prosecutor's decision.

The case is sure to revive debate over the death penalty. Ms. Smith's family says she is an emotionally disturbed woman who acted out of desperation after a failed love affair. They argue that putting her to death would serve no purpose. Mr. Pope insists the ultimate penalty is warranted under South Carolina law because of aggravating circumstances: the death of two young children.

Mr. Pope may have made his job harder by trying to put Ms. Smith in the electric chair. Juries are hesitant to sentence women to death, and they are often more reluctant to convict in cases where death is a possible penalty. South Carolina hasn't executed a woman in nearly 50 years.

We have long opposed the death penalty. It has never been shown to deter crime, and recent experience suggests that its application is inherently arbitrary and capricious -- the Supreme Court's own standard for judging its legality. These objections are easy to find in the Smith case.

The prosecutor says the death penalty is needed because defendants sentenced to life often are paroled eventually. He wants to ensure Ms. Smith pays a severe penalty if convicted. But that is a poor argument for the state's taking of a life. Justice would be better served by simply limiting parole. No matter how despicable the crime, execution is a cruel and barbarous form of punishment that no humane society ought to tolerate.

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