Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Susan Smith: Child Murderer or Victim?

Penalty Phase

The same jury who convicted Susan Smith of murdering her two sons would decide whether she would die in the electric chair or receive a life in prison sentence in the penalty phase. The penalty phase would be similar to the trial, except that the prosecution had more latitude in building its theory that Susan Smith was a cold-blooded murderer who killed her children in the hope of reclaiming her lover.

Keith Gieses opening statement for the prosecution during the penalty phase was similar to his opening statement during the trial. Giese reminded the jury of Susans "nine days of deceit and nine days of trickery."

In his opening statement, David Bruck told the jury that "the greatest punishment for Susan Smith would be life in prison, not death." This argument is what Dr. Morgan, the states psychiatric expert witness, and other witnesses said she desired during her trial. Bruck reiterated to the jury that Smith was a deeply depressed and fragile person who made serious mistakes in her life to win love.

Solicitor Thomas Pope began the states case by showing videotapes of Susan Smith lying about the disappearance of her sons. The first videotape was her tearful plea to the phantom carjacker outside the Union County Courthouse on November 2, 1994. The second videotape was composed of segments of three interviews Susan had given to network morning programs on November 3, 1994, the day she confessed to the crimes.

Three witnesses testified during the first day of the penalty phase for the prosecution. Margaret Frierson, the executive director of the South Carolina Adam Walsh Center, testified that Susan seemed unusually calm for a parent dealing with the disappearance of her children. Margaret Gregory, Susans cousin, testified about the number of times that Susan had appeared on television and perpetuated her lie that a black man had carjacked her and kidnapped her children. The last witness was Eddie Harris, a SLED agent, who testified that when he transported Susan during her interrogations and he was surprised by her calmness and disinterest in finding her children. Harris testified that at one point Susan had asked him how she appeared on television.

On Tuesday, July 25, 1995, the prosecution presented the heart of its case. David Smith testified that "all his hopes, all my dreams, everything that I had planned for the rest of my life, ended," on October 25, 1994. Smith was dressed in a white shirt and plaid Mickey Mouse tie and at times cried uncontrollably when talking about the nine days he spent believing his sons had been abducted by a carjacker. Smith began to cry, along with at least three of the jurors, when he said, "I didnt know what to do." "Everything I had planned on, my life with my kids was gone." Judge Howard called a recess as Smith tried to collect himself. As Susan Smith was escorted away to a holding cell, she called out softly, "Im sorry David." David Smith did not look at her.

When the hearing resumed, Thomas Pope raised several potentially damaging cross-examination topics, including the amount of money Smith was paid for co-writing a book about his life with Susan Smith. Smith testified that he was paid $110,000 and that he kept $20,000 of the $110,000 to help him through the trial, since he had taken a leave of absence from his job as the night manager of the Winn Dixie in Union.

After two hours of difficult testimony, Judge Howard called a lunch recess. David Smith appeared to be drained and collapsed into his fathers arms after court was recessed.

In a surprising move, David Bruck did not question David Smith. Bruck had little to gain with a tough cross-examination of David Smith after Smith had won the jurors hearts. Bruck later said that his client had asked him not to cross-examine David Smith.

Videotaped re-enactment of car sinking (AP)
Videotaped re-enactment of car
sinking (AP)

The prosecution showed the jury two-videotape re-enactments of Susan Smiths burgundy Mazda rolling down the boat ramp and into the water. During the showing of the videotape of the car filling with water, Prosecutor Keith Giese commented that the rear of the car was rising while the front of the car was filling with water and that Michael and Alex would have faced the lakes water before the water engulfed them. The videotape re-enactment of Susans Mazda submerging into the lake showed that it took a full six minutes for the car to fill with water before it became completely submerged, because the cars doors and windows were closed.

On Wednesday, July 27, 1995 the prosecution showed the jury pictures taken of Michael and Alex after they had been removed from the Mazda. Judge Howard only allowed photographs showing the brothers discolored and decomposing legs and arms. The judge would not allow several photos showing the full effects of the nine-day submersion to be shown to the jury. After the presentation of the photos, the prosecution rested its case and the defense began its case by calling two witnesses.

Arlene Andrews, the University of South Carolina social work professor who had testified during Susans trial, testified that David and Susan Smiths relationship was extremely strained and that Susan was thrown into a downward spiral that ended in the murders of her children. Andrews testified that Susans mental health began to deteriorate in August 1994 after the Smiths final attempt at reconciling their marriage failed. Andrews told the jury that when Susan told David that she would seek a divorce in July 1994, the couple agreed to seek an amiable divorce with neither party blaming the other. However, Susan reneged on this agreement and decided to seek a divorce on the grounds of adultery. David retaliated against Susan and on October 20th, searched Susans purse and found the letter Tom Findlay had written her dated October 17, 1994. When David confronted Susan, she confessed to having an affair with Findlays father, J. Carey Findlay, the owner of Conso Products. David threatened Susan by telling her that he would reveal the relationship to Findlays wife. Susan became distraught and thought she had done something unforgivable. Andrews testified that Susans suicidal despair set in and she began to think everything about her was bad. Five days after the argument with David, she murdered their sons.

Scotty Vaughn, Susans brother made a tearful plea for mercy on behalf of his sister. Weve been devastated already with the loss of Michael and Alex, it seems sad and ironic that the tragedy of their loss is going to be used to sentence Susan to death. Vaughn further testified that Susans pain is in living, not in the fear of dying. He added, I dont think the state could punish her anymore that shes been punished.

On the last day of the penalty phase, July 27, 1995, Beverly Russell testified and accepted part of the blame for the deaths of Michael and Alex Smith. Russell admitted that he molested Susan when she was a teenager and had consensual sex with her as an adult. During his testimony, Russell also told the jury that his sexual relationship with Susan occurred mostly at his home, only once at Susan and Davids home and once at a motel in Spartenburg. Russell read from his Fathers day letter to Susan. Russell pleaded for Susans life, telling the jury that Susan was sick and even though she loved her children, what happened was from a sickness...Its horrible.

Thomas Pope gave the prosecutions closing argument. Pope urged the jury to vote for a death sentence. He told the jury that there was one theme in the case and it was the choice that Susan made. Pope reminded the jury that Susan Smith chose to drive to the lake. Pope continued, she chose to send Michael and Alex down that ramp. Pope added, then as heinous as that act was, she carried it even further by choosing to lie. Pope tried to show the jury that Susan was fooling them with her claims of remorse, the way she fooled everyone during the nine-day investigation. Pope reiterated the prosecutions theory that Susan was selfish and manipulative and killed her children so that she could reclaim her boyfriend, Tom Findlay.

In his closing statement, David Bruck took the jury through Susans family history and life experiences. He explained how the choices Susan made were tragic and how the jury was left with a choice, but that the jurys judgment was more sound than Susans and that the choice the jury should make was to sentence Susan to life in prison. Toward the end of his closing argument, David Bruck held a bible and read from the Gospel of John about the woman who committed adultery and was to be stoned. He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone, Bruck read. Bruck told the jury that Susans choice to go to the lake will haunt her for the rest of her life.

After the closing arguments were completed, Judge Howard gave Susan one last chance to address the jury, but she declined.

At 4:38 p.m. the jury returned with a unanimous decision after deliberating for two and one half-hours. The jury rejected the prosecutions request for a sentence of death for Susan and decided instead that Susan should spend the rest of her natural life in prison. The jury had taken the same amount of time to convict Susan as it did to reject the death penalty

At 4:45 p.m., Judge Howard sentenced Susan Smith to thirty years to life in prison. Susan will be eligible for parole in 2025, after she has served 30 years in prison. At that time, Susan will be 53 years old.

Union County Courthouse as newscrews wait for sentence (AP)
Union County Courthouse as
newscrews wait for sentence (AP)
Later when jurors were asked about their decision, they acknowledged that they knew of Sheriff Wells comments after Susans arrest. Wells had said that if Susan Smith had not confessed, investigators would probably not have been able to amass enough evidence to charge her with the crimes she committed. Jurors saw that Susan had an opportunity to escape punishment, yet she chose not to do so. The jury recognized this fact and considered it a reason to spare her life. Jurors also said that they felt that Susan needed help and did not deserve to be sentenced to death. Jurors believed Susans attorneys claims that Susan murdered her children while trying to end her own life. Jurors also felt sorry for Susan because of her mental state during the commission of the crimes. Jurors admitted that the closeness of the Union community weighed into their decision to spare Susans life.

David Smith felt that justice was not served because Susan was not sentenced to death. He said that he respected the jurys decision and the verdict, but did not agree with it. David also said that he would appear at Susans parole hearings each time she might be considered for release to make sure that her life sentence means life.

The sad facts of the Susan Smith case are these: a young woman, with an extensive social support network and prior contact with the mental health profession, was failed in a moment that she most needed help. On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith did not know how to deal with the emotional pain of her past or her immediate present. Why Susan Smith committed her crimes was only partially answered at her trial. Susan Smith had many more resources available to her than most young, single mothers, yet she choose to make a decision that remains incomprehensible. Susan Smith had no prior history of violence or abuse toward her children or any signs of psychosis or biological disorder. Susans act was a culmination of a disturbed and emotionally disordered life that resulted in the tragic murder of two innocent children.


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'