Murderous mother gets life in prison

July 29, 1995|By New York Times News Service

UNION, S.C. -- A jury decided yesterday that Susan Smith should not be put to death for the drowning of her two young sons and instead should spend the rest of her life in prison, to remember.

It took the jury 2 1/2 hours to reject the prosecution's request for the death penalty and settle on the life sentence.

Its unanimous decision saved Smith from death row but left her alone in a tiny cell with the ghosts of her dead children for at least the next 30 years, her lawyer said.

"This young woman is in a lake of fire," said the lawyer, David Bruck. "That's her punishment."

Mr. Bruck had argued that she was so distraught over the deaths of her children, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, that she did not want to live. But as the jury's verdict was read, she gasped, and slipped her arm around his waist to give him a quick, firm hug.

Susan Smith, at the center of a murder case that first drew the sympathy and later the loathing of the nation, was convicted Saturday of murder.

To reclaim a lover who said he did not want a relationship with a woman who had children, the prosecutor contended, Susan Smith drove to a dark lake on the night of Oct. 25 and sent her car rolling into the water with the two little boys strapped inside in their car seats.

For nine days, she looked into television cameras and mournfully begged a phantom carjacker, whom she described as a young black man with a gun, to bring her babies back.

Then, after thousands of volunteers had combed back roads, dredged lakes, passed out fliers and prayed for her sons' safety, she broke down after a prayer with a plain-spoken, methodical county sheriff and said the words that no one wanted to believe.

Now, after nine months of what residents here call a collective pain over these murders and the national attention -- for all the wrong reasons -- it has brought to this little mill town, it is over.

Inside the courtroom, members of her family clasped their hands and prayed as the verdict was read. Across the courtroom, the boys' father sat like a statue. David Smith had said he wanted his estranged wife to die for what she did.

It was a lifetime of deep depression, punctuated by destructive sexual affairs and suicide attempts, that caused Susan Smith to snap the night of the murders and do what few human beings could ever do, her lawyers claimed.

That sickened Mr. Smith, who buried his children in the same coffin while his former wife sat in her prison cell.

"Me and my family are disappointed that the death penalty was not the verdict," he said, his lips quivering as he held back his tears. "But it wasn't our choice. They returned a verdict they thought was justice.

"I'll never forget what Susan has done to me, my family and her family. I can never forget Michael and Alex.

"But forgive? That's something I guess I'll have to deal with further down the road."

He said he would probably leave town. There are too many memories here, crowding in on him.

"There are a lot of things I would rather not look at for the rest of my life," he said.

The state's lead prosecutor, Tommy Pope, had tried to show that Susan Smith was fooling everyone with her claims of remorse, the way she fooled everyone for nine days in October and November.

"She may be sorry now," Mr. Pope said, his voice rising from a near whisper to a shout as he urged the jury for a death sentence in his closing argument. "But was she sorry when she dropped that hand brake down?" and sent her children to their death.

He laid photographs of the two little boys on the rail of the jury box as he spoke of what the boys must have felt as the car slid under the lake at about 9 p.m.

"When that car filled up with water, they probably didn't see it," said Mr. Pope, because of the dark of the night. "But they felt that water in the darkness as it covered their faces."

His case against Susan Smith, and his refusal to accept a plea bargain from Mr. Bruck for life in prison, caused the town to have to relive the worst thing that has ever happened here.

He has been criticized, and accused by Mr. Bruck and others of using the case to build a reputation and future political career.

"I stand by it and I always will," he said of his decision. "Even at the end of this road we've all been through, I'd say it was still worth it. It had to be done."

If he had not done what he did, he said, the horror of what she did would have slipped easily by, with the lives of the children.

Mr. Bruck said that would not have happened, because Susan Smith will pay every day for her crimes.

She is afraid, because of her mental condition, to be alone, and her depression deepens every time she is left alone, he said.

"Her life doesn't look too much different today that it did yesterday," he said. "She is relieved for her family. She knew the people she loved could not bear her death."

But now Susan Smith will go back to a cell so small she can almost the touch the walls from side to side when she stretches out her arms.

She will have visitors, but she will spend most days alone, except for the guards.

"There is no good outcome in this case. This case was an awful case of tragedy from the beginning and still is," Mr. Bruck said. "It was such an awful thing, an unbearable thing."

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