On trial, a mother's state of mind

July 19, 1995|By New York Times News Service

UNION, S.C. -- The prosecution urged the jurors at the Susan Smith trial to hold on to their common sense in the weeks ahead and said they would come to see Mrs. Smith as a selfish, malicious killer who sacrificed her children for the love of the son of a rich industrialist.

The defense begged them to look into their hearts and, through that softer focus, find a disturbed, childlike figure who, after a lifetime of sadness, just snapped like a dry twig.

As simplistic as those opposing views might seem, they will be the crux of the next month of testimony in Mrs. Smith's capital murder trial, which officially began yesterday with opening statements in the elegant old Union County Courthouse.

"For nine days in the fall of 1994, Susan Smith looked this country in the eyes and lied," said Keith Giese, a special prosecutor. "She begged God to return her children to safety, and the whole time she knew her children were lying dead at the bottom of John D. Long Lake. . . .

"This was a conscious decision to kill her children."

Mrs. Smith, who had sat quietly through most of the court proceedings, started to cry.

One of her lawyers said the defense would try to convince the jury not that she was insane, but that she was only deeply troubled and mentally ill. She knows what she did was wrong, and it tortures her, said the lawyer, Judy Clarke, in her opening statement.

Depression and a sense of failure in a life that included molestation at the hands of her stepfather, the suicide of her father and her own suicide attempts -- twice in her teens -- pushed Mrs. Smith to the edge of the lake, to kill herself and her children, Ms. Clarke said.

At the last second, her body willed itself out of the car, and she lived and her toddlers died, Ms. Clarke said.

Mrs. Smith, 23, confessed Nov. 3 to rolling her car down a boat tTC ramp and into the lake as Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, sat strapped into their car seats. For nine days after the children died Oct. 25, she maintained that a young black man had stolen the children in a carjacking.

Mr. Giese said the two boys died because Mrs. Smith, who was divorcing her husband, thought she could reclaim Tom Findlay, a lover who had discarded her. Mr. Findlay, the son of a wealthy mill owner, wrote a letter to Mrs. Smith shortly before the deaths, saying he was not ready for a relationship with a woman with a ready-made family.

That letter is expected to be a key piece of evidence.

"The stumbling block to Mrs. Smith getting Tom Findlay back was her children," said Mr. Giese. "Mrs. Smith removed that obstacle from her life."

Ms. Clarke, who took a leave of absence from her job as a federal public defender in Washington state to help David Bruck, a death penalty expert, try the case, described a much different woman.

"It is a not a single reason that brought Susan to that lake," said Ms. Clarke, who spoke calmly to the jurors. "It is not a boyfriend. It was not to remove an obstacle."

She said Mrs. Smith sat in her car at the lake and let it roll toward the water, stopped, let it roll toward the water again and stopped again.

The third time, she released the hand brake, the lawyer said, and stepped from the car, then ran away with her hands clamped over her ears to hide the noise. She kept running until she reached the house of Shirley and Rick McCloud, who live near the entrance to the lake.

Mrs. McCloud, the first witness to testify, said she heard Mrs. Smith's sobbing before Mrs. Smith knocked on her door. Mrs. Smith told the witness, "He's got my children."

When Mrs. Smith was molested at 15 by her stepfather, her mother decided not to press charges. When psychiatrists suggested that Mrs. Smith should get mental treatment for depression in high school, her mother and stepfather refused.

When her mother, Linda Russell, came to be at her daughter's side in the McCloud house, one of the first things she did was to admonish her daughter for not keeping her car doors locked, Mrs. McCloud said.

Court ended early yesterday when a bomb threat cleared the courtroom. It was believed to be a hoax.

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