Susan Smith: Child Murderer or Victim?
After Susan was arrested for the murders of Michael and Alex, she was held without bail at the York County Jail. On the evening that Susan was arrested, Bev and Linda Russell hired David Bruck, a Columbia, South Carolina attorney specializing in death penalty cases, to represent Susan. The Russells would eventually be forced to mortgage their home in order to pay for Brucks services.
The prosecutor for Susan Smiths trial was Union County Solicitor Thomas Pope, 32, who, at the time of the Smith trial, was the youngest prosecutor in the state of South Carolina. Pope grew up in Union and attended the University of South Carolina for college and law school. Before joining the Solicitors office, Pope worked as an undercover drug agent for the State Law Enforcement Division. Pope is the son of a South Carolina sheriff and had tried one other murder case before the Smith case, the case of a father who confessed to smothering his son. In that case, Pope accepted a plea bargain of an eight-year prison sentence for the father. Pope was considered young, articulate and hardworking.
On November 18, 1994, a hearing was held before Circuit Judge John Hayes at the request of Solicitor Thomas Pope. Pope requested that Susan undergo a psychological examination by an impartial physician to determine whether she was criminally responsible for the crime she had confessed to and if she was competent to stand trial. David Bruck objected to the evaluation stating that the information contained in it could later be used against Susan if Pope chose to seek the death penalty. Judge Hayes put off ruling on the request and asked Pope to submit for his review a list of cases where judges ordered psychiatric evaluations of defendants. One week later, Pope filed a fifty-eight page brief. In late November, Judge Hayes ruled against the State, stating that the request for a neutral examination was premature, given that David Bruck had not yet said whether Susan would be offering an insanity defense at her trial.
From the time after her bail hearing until her trial, Susan was jailed at the Womens Correctional Facility in Columbia, 70 miles south of Union. She was given both physical and psychological evaluations by the prison staff and placed on a twenty-four-hour suicide watch. Susan was checked every fifteen minutes by a prison guard. This suicide watch continued for eight months until Susans trial began. Susan was housed in a six-by-fourteen-foot cell where a light was on twenty-four hours a day so that a closed circuit television camera could monitor her. Susan was allowed to keep a bible, a blanket, and her glasses in her cell. She was also allowed short visits from her family. Because she was on a suicide watch, Susan wore a paper gown.
About three weeks after Susan had confessed, she asked David to visit her at the Womens Correctional Facility. David and Susan met for one hour. Susan apologized again and again for killing their sons, but when David asked her why she had committed the crime; Susan did not have an answer. David left feeling sorry for Susan, although his feeling later changed and he became angry with her.
On January 16, 1995, Solicitor Thomas Pope filed a notice of intention to seek the death penalty against Susan Smith. The notice stated that the State of South Carolina would offer evidence at Susans trial that two aggravating circumstances existed in the murders of Michael and Alex Smith. The two circumstances that made Susan Smith eligible for the death penalty were the fact that she murdered two people during one act and that the murders were committed against children under the age of eleven.
On January 27, 1995, Judge William Howard issued a gag order prohibiting the prosecutors, defense attorneys and investigators from releasing any prejudicial information that had not been presented to the court. Prior to the beginning of the trial, Judge Howard would rule in favor of a defense motion to ban television cameras from the courtroom during the trial. Judge Howard based his ruling on what he considered to be the circus like atmosphere that television cameras had created in the O.J. Simpson trial that was ongoing in Los Angeles as well as the pre-trial publicly the case had received. Judge Howard also wanted to keep a tight rein on the length of the trial as well as the conduct of the trial participants.
In February, the defense hired a team of psychiatrists led by Dr. Seymour Halleck to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of Susan at the Womens Correctional Facility. Halleck interviewed Susan for 15 hours over four sessions in February, March and June.
Halleck diagnosed Susan as having a "dependent personality disorder" and described her as a person who "feels she cant do things on her own." "She constantly needs affection and becomes terrified that shell be left alone." Halleck found that Susan was only depressed when she was alone. She almost always was in a normal mood when she was around people. In Hallecks opinion, Susan did not suffer from deep depression. Halleck found that Susan became suicidal when she was depressed. Halleck also studied Susans family history and concluded based on her family history and his psychiatric interviews with her that Susan had a tendency toward depression that began in her childhood. Halleck believed that Susans family tree had a genetic predisposition for depression because so many of her relatives had symptoms of depression and alcoholism.
Bev and Linda Russell separated in February and Bev moved in with his aunt, while Linda lived in their Mount Vernon Estates home. Bev resigned from the state Republican executive committee, explaining that for personal reasons, he could no longer serve.
On March 23, 1995, Judge Howard ordered Susan to undergo an evaluation by Dr. Donald Morgan, a psychiatrist from the University of South Carolina. Dr. Morgans evaluation was conducted on behalf of the prosecution.
Susan and Davids divorce became final in May. At a brief hearing, that Susan waived her right to attend, Tom Findlay testified about their adultery. In the final divorce settlement, David and Susan divided Michael and Alexs toys and clothing in half. David received the Mazda that he later had destroyed after Susans trial was completed.
In June, Susan received a letter from Bev Russell. Russell wrote, "My heart breaks for what I have done to you." Russell also wrote that, "I want you to know that you do not have all the guilt for this tragedy." The letter was dated June 18, 1995, Fathers day.
Before Susans trial began on July 10, 1995, there was speculation about the arguments her attorneys would use in her defense during her trial. Many expected Susans attorneys to argue that she was the victim of destructive relationships and influences since her birth. The prosecution was expected to paint Susan as a scheming monster who lied to her family, friends, hometown and the nation for nine days when she blamed a phantom black carjacker for the disappearance of her two sons, before confessing that she had drown her children.
Along with the speculation of what type of defense Susan would argue at her trial, there was speculation about Susan and Susans personality. To many people in Union, it appeared that during Susans 23 years she had developed a dual personality, she presented one side of her personality to some and the other side of her personality to others. One side of Susans personality was described as manipulative and deceitful and capable of ending her childrens lives in order to improve her own. Was it was possible that this side of Susans personality murdered her children in the hope of reclaiming her boyfriend, Tom Findlay? Or was Susan suffering from a psychiatric condition that explained why her behavior caused the death of her children? Many people hoped that these questions would answer the question of why Susan had murdered her children.
Prior to the start of the trial, Bruck proposed that Susan plead guilty to the murders of her children and be sentenced to 30 years to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, but this plea bargain was rejected by Thomas Pope. Pope said that he sought the death penalty "after careful deliberation and consultation with family members of the victims." Pope also said that he sought the death penalty based on the facts of the case.
In a move that some questioned at the time that it was made, David Bruck did not request a change in venue from Union to another town. In retrospect, this was a very shrewd maneuver. Bruck was convinced that if he could gain the sympathy of Susans hometown, her neighbors and residents of the community where she grew up, he could spare her life. Bruck had correctly noted that the mood of the black and white residents of Union had softened and that Susan had become the object of prayer vigils. Bruck found that more Union residents were willing to accept that Susan was mentally ill, than thought she was evil. Bruck believed that jurors from Susans hometown would have a difficult time sentencing her to death.
A few days before the start of her trial and with the permission of David Bruck, Susans pastor, Mark Long, held a press conference to reveal that Susan had undergone a jailhouse Christian conversion and baptism. There was some speculation regarding the timing of Susans conversion. Some people expressed the feeling that it seemed too convenient and useful to Susan because of her upcoming trial.
On July 11, 1995, after a two-day hearing, Judge Howard ruled that Susan was mentally competent to stand trial. This ruling was made even though the states psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Morgan, who had testified at the competence hearing, stated that he believed that Susan might try to sabotage her own defense, if she took the witness stand, because she wanted to die. Morgan had examined Susan in April, May and June for approximately ten hours and diagnosed Susan as manifesting an "adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features, including some depression." Although Susan appeared listless during the court session and was dependent upon Prozac, an anti-depressant drug to help her understand and follow the proceedings, Judge Howard ruled that the trial could proceed.
The trial was held at the Union County Courthouse, which was originally designed by Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument. The courthouse was rebuilt between 1911 and 1913 and renovated in 1974. Judge William Howards courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse is one of the largest in South Carolina and contained thirteen rows of benches for members of the press and the public. The first two rows of benches on the left-hand side of the courtroom were reserved for Susans family and friends and the first two rows of benches on the right hand side of the courtroom were reserved for David Smiths family and friends. During the trial, all the seats were filled and crowds of people were turned away from the proceedings. The courtroom was old and the acoustics were terrible. If the attorneys or witnesses moved from their microphones, it was difficult to hear what was being said. The floor creaked which forced Judge Howard to enforce a strict order prohibiting the public from moving from their seats when court was in session.
The pace of the trial would be fast. Judge Howard set a Monday through Saturday schedule beginning on the trials first day, July 10, 1995.
Jury selection moved quickly and was completed on the sixth day of the trial, July 16, 1995. Lawyers interviewed 55 prospective jurors out of 250 people called during the jury selection process. Many of those interviewed said that they were strongly opposed to the death penalty. The jury was composed of 12 jurors and two alternates and was a mix of blue-collar workers, merchants and professionals. The 12 jurors were composed of seven whites and five blacks. Almost all of the white jurors, five men and two women, had friends or acquaintances on the list of witnesses for the trial, but they said they could put aside their feelings and friendships and decide the case based on the evidence presented. The black jurors, four men and one woman, did not seem to be acquainted with Susan, her friends, family or people listed as witnesses for the trial.
At one point, after the jury was selected, Bruck argued that the jury was biased because of the 12 jurors, nine were men and only three were women. Bruck argued that the jury was not representative of the community, but his argument was overruled.
On Tuesday, July 18, 1995, the day the trial was set to begin, the Union County Courthouse received a bomb threat that required the evacuation of everyone inside. The man who telephoned the threat was quickly found and arrested.
Opening statements began on Wednesday, July 19, 1995. Special Prosecutor Keith Giese, assistant to Solicitor Thomas Pope, began his opening statement by stating the facts of the prosecutions case. For nine days in the fall of 1994, Susan Smith looked this country in the eye and lied. 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. Giese continued by telling jurors that Michael and Alex Smith died because their mother thought she could reclaim Tom Findlay, a lover who had discarded her. The stumbling block to Mrs. Smith getting Tom Findlay back was her children. Giese added that, Mrs. Smith removed that obstacle from her life. Toward the end of his statement, Giese told the jurors that, this is a case of selfishness, of I, I, I, and me, me, me. Giese concluded his statement by asking jurors to hold on to their common sense in the weeks ahead, because they would come to see Susan Smith as a selfish, manipulative killer who sacrificed her children for love of the son of a rich industrialist. The prosecutions case was based on the theory that Susan wanted to escape her loneliness, unhappiness and the stresses in her life by establishing an exciting, intimate relationship with her wealthy boyfriend. In order to live this new life; Susan would need to free herself of her children and the demands of motherhood.
The defenses opening statement was given by Judy Clarke who asked the jurors to look into their hearts, and through that softer focus, find a disturbed, child-like figure who, after a lifetime of sadness, just snapped. Clarke told jurors that Susan was deeply depressed and had a sense of failure in her life. This sense of failure included acts of molestation at the hands of her stepfather, the suicide of her father and her own suicide attempts. All of these events contributed to pushing her to the edge of the lake to kill herself and her children. At the last second, her body willed itself out of the car, and she lived and her toddlers died, Clarke added. Clarke told the jury that When we talk about Susan Smiths life, we are not trying to gain your sympathy, were trying to gain your understanding. Clarke stated that Susans lie is wrong. Its a shame, but it is a child-like lie, from a damaged person. The defenses strategy was to outline Susans emotional troubles that caused her to drown her two sons. The defense attorneys believed that by portraying Susan as a person with emotional problems, they could save her from the electric chair. Susans defense attorneys did not claim she was insane or that a mental illness caused her to murder her sons.
The first witness to testify at the trial was Shirley McCloud. McCloud testified about Susans appearance at her front door. McCloud told the jury that when Linda Russell came to be with her daughter, one of the first things that she did was to scold Susan for not locking her car doors.
Among the first witnesses called to testify were the law enforcement agents and investigators who were involved in the case. Sheriff Howard Wells testified how he had tricked Susan into confessing with a small lie of his own. Wells described how on the afternoon of November 3, 1994, he told Susan that he knew her claim that her children had been taken at an intersection outside of Union was a lie because he had assigned sheriffs deputies to conduct a surveillance at the crossroads. Wells told her that "this could not happen as you said." Wells told the jury that there had been no deputies at the intersection and that, "I told her I would release it to the media because the lie about a black carjacker was causing deep pain among blacks, and he owed it to the town to end the racial divisiveness it had caused." According to Wells, Susan then broke down and confessed to the murders. Wells also testified that even though he was suspicious of Susan, he did not arrest her because he was not certain until she confessed what had happened to Michael and Alex.
After the first day of testimony, Judge Howard removed a juror from the panel and had her jailed. Gayle Beam, the only black woman on the jury, was held in contempt of court and jailed because she did not disclose on her jury questionnaire that she had recently plead guilty to credit card fraud. Beam was questioned by Judge Howard and admitted that she had not looked at the questionnaire that the court required her to complete and instead had her daughter complete it for her. Beam faced a fine of $10,000 and a sentence up to six months in jail, if found guilty of the charges. One of the two alternate jurors was selected and replaced Beam.
On the second day of the trial, Pete Logan, the State Law Enforcement Division agent who spent 24 hours interrogating Susan testified. Logan described Susans troubled life and her sexual relationships. Logan told the jury that Susan had sex with her estranged husband, David, on October 21, four days before murdering her sons. It was during this encounter that Susan claimed that David told her that he tapped her home telephone and knew about the affair she was having with Carey Findlay, the owner of Conso Products. Logan testified about Susan prior suicide attempts and the remorse that she showed during her confession.
Other investigators followed Logan and testified that from the beginning of the case, they were suspicious of Susan. These witnesses described a woman who cried without shedding any tears, who seemed more interested in how she looked on television than in having her sons returned and who spoke of going to the beach to get away from hounding reporters.
Roy Paschal, who drew the composite sketch of the phantom carjacker, testified that Susan "started off extremely vague," when describing the alleged carjackers physical appearance.
David Espie, the FBI agent who administered several polygraph tests to Susan, testified that Susan "would make sobbing noises, but when I would looked at her eyes, there was no water, there were no tears."
Steve Morrow, a diving expert with the South Carolina Department of National Resources and one of the divers who searched for the missing car, also testified on the second day of the trial. Morrow testified about finding the car with theSmith children inside. Morrow described how along with the bodies of Michael and Alex Smith, the letter from Tom Findlay telling Susan that their relationship was over was also found in Susans car.
Tom Findlay testified during the second day of the trial. Findlay testified that he had written a letter to Susan telling her that he did not want to be in a relationship that included children. By having Findlay testify and introducing his letter into evidence, the prosecution sought to portray Susan as so maliciously selfish that she would trade her sons lives for a chance to reclaim Findlay.
During Findlays cross-examination by David Bruck, Findlay assisted Susans defense by telling the jury that he thought Susan was a "sweet, loving person" rather than the monster the prosecution was trying to construct. Bruck also scored points with the jury when he asked Findlay about his sexual relationship with Susan. Findlay testified that the "pleasure she got from sex was not physical pleasure." "It was just in being close, being loved." Another area that Findlay may have assisted Susan was when he testified about David Smiths behavior. Findlay testified about an incident that occurred one year before the murders when he had telephoned Susan Smith one day at her home. Apparently David Smith had hidden in a closet and in an apparent fit of jealously, emerged from the closet, snatched the telephone from Susan and told Findlay that he would harm him if he continued to see Susan.
Three of Susans co-workers from Conso testified that Susan had on separate occasions told them that she wondered how her life would be different if she had not gotten married and had children at a young age.
After two days of testimony, the state rested its case against Susan Smith. The last witness to testify for the prosecution was Dr. Sandra Conradi, the pathologist who performed the autopsies on Michael and Alex Smith. Conradi testified for 15 minutes because David Bruck stipulated to the identity of the Smith brothers and the fact that drowning was the cause of death. Judge Howard refused to allow prosecutors to show the jury horrific pictures of Michael and Alex after they had been under John D. Long Lake for nine days. Judge Howard also refused to allow prosecutors to question Conradi about the decayed nature of the bodies because he felt that the descriptions were so terrible that they would be prejudicial. Conradi testified that she received the bodies of Michael and Alex Smith still strapped to their car seats and that neither child was wearing shoes.
The states case was expected to last at least two weeks, however, it moved more quickly than expected because Judge Howard prevented the state from presenting its full case against Susan. Judge Howard limited the evidence presented to the jury and David Bruck often stipulated to points in the case rather than forcing Solicitor Pope to prove them.
Because Susan had confessed to the murders of her sons, her attorneys were left with two choices in defending her. The first choice was to have Susan plead not guilty by reason of insanity. This required that Susans attorneys prove that she was insane at the time of the murders by demonstrating that she could not distinguish between right and wrong, either morally or legally. The second choice was to have Susan plead guilty, but mentally ill. This would require that Susans attorneys prove that she was mentally incapable of complying with the law at the time of the murders, even if she knew that her actions were wrong. The problem with the first choice was that Susan was not mentally ill. She was depressed and suicidal, but not insane.
A diagnosis of insanity means that an individual is delusional, schizophrenic or psychotic and Susan was none of these. David Bruck rejected the second choice because it was determined through examinations conducted by Dr. Halleck that Susan was not mentally ill. The only option open was for the defense to plead that Susan was suffering from severe mental depression and that the murders were a failed suicide in which Susan planned to drown herself as well as her sons.
On Thursday, July 20, 1995, the defense began its case. David Bruck recalled Pete Logan, the SLED Agent, and Carol Allison, the FBI agent who had been originally called by the prosecution, because both were so sympathetic to Susans case when they testified. Bruck questioned both Logan and Allison about Susans remorse. Thomas Pope tried to counter the agents testimony by pointing out to the jury that Smith was an accomplished liar who had misled investigators for nine days.
Arlene Andrews, a social worker at the University of South Carolina, testified about a family tree she had constructed of Susans family that showed a strong history of deep depression among the Vaughn family. Andrews described several attempted and successful suicides by members of Susans family.
On Friday July 21, 1995, the defenses most important witness, Dr. Seymour Halleck, testified. Dr. Seymour Halleck is a University of North Carolina psychiatrist and law professor who led the team that examined Susan to determine whether she was competent to stand trial.
Halleck testified that Susan suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts in the months leading up to the October 25th murders and that these thoughts allowed her to fall into a destructive cycle of sexual relationships in order to ease her loneliness. Halleck testified that Susan had sex with four different men during the six-week period leading up to the murders. Susan had also begun to drink heavily during this period of time.
Halleck testified that Susan had sex with her stepfather, Beverly Russell; Tom Findlay, her boyfriend at the time; with J. Carey Findlay, the owner of the mill where she worked; and with her estranged husband, David Smith. Halleck said that Susans sexual relationships temporarily eased her depression, but that her guilt ultimately deepened her depression. Halleck told the jury that "Much of her sexual activity was not for her own satisfaction." Halleck added that, "Susan was more concerned with pleasing others and making sure that they liked her."
Hallecks testimony was an attempt by the defense to poke holes in the prosecutions theory that Susan murdered her children so that she could rekindle her relationship with Tom Findlay. Halleck dismissed the prosecutions theory that Susan murdered her children to reclaim Findlay saying that it was an "absurd idea." He labeled Susans affair with Findlay as "passing" and added that Susan had, "strong feelings for a lot of different men and that it was very unlikely that Tom Findlay was number one on her list."
Halleck testified that he thought Susan had sex with J. Carey Findlay because she was molested by her stepfather and had a need for love and approval of an older man. Halleck also testified that Susan had told him that when she slept with Beverly Russell, "it made her skin crawl," and that Halleck thought the reasons that Susan did these things was because she sought love and approval. Solicitor Pope had Halleck admit that most of his information came from Susan and that her constant need for affection was a symptom of "brief, intermittent depressive disorder," in which Susan was able much of the time to make her co-workers and friends believe that she was fine.
Halleck also described Susans behavior on the night of the murders and said that he believed that she intended to kill herself, but that a "survival instinct" took over and that she blocked out the presence of her two sons at the instant she released the parking brake. Halleck also described how as Susan ran from the edge of the lake to the McClouds home she began to make up her story of being carjacked by a black man because she was afraid of what others would think of her. Halleck told the jury that if Susan had been treated for depression with Prozac, the murders would never have occurred.
David Bruck asked Halleck the question that everyone wanted to ask, "Why didnt Susan go into the water?" Halleck answered that he could only assume that "when she ran out of her car, that her self-preservation instincts took over, and although up to that moment she fully intended to kill herself, she got frightened."
Several other defense witnesses testified that Susan had been depressed as a child and that she had been suicidal since the age of ten. After four days of testimony, the defense rested its case. David Bruck told the jury that Susan accepted responsibility for what she did, but that her actions were attributable to her depression.
Closing arguments were given on Saturday, July 22, 1995. Solicitor Pope was impassioned when he described the circumstances of Michael and Alexs deaths. "I submit to you that they were in that car, screaming, crying, calling for their father, while the woman who placed them in that car was running up the hill with her hands covering her ears." Pope went back to his theme that the murders were committed so that Susan could reclaim Tom Findlay and have a life with him. "She used the emergency brake handle like a gun, and eliminated her toddlers so that she could have a chance at a life with Tom Findlay, the man she said she loved."
Judy Clarke was less dramatic and used her closing argument to continue to appeal to the jurys sympathy, saying that Susan had never shown anything "except unconditional love for her children." Clarke continued by telling the jury that, "there was no malice in what she did, so it was not murder." Clarke told the jury that "this is not a case about evil, but a case of sadness and despair." Clarke added that, "Susan had choices in her life, but her choices were irrational and her choices were tragic."
In a ruling that surprised and upset the prosecution and the Smith family, Judge Howard ruled in favor of a defense motion to allow the jury to consider a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. If the jury had chosen to convict Susan of involuntary manslaughter, she would have faced a sentence of three to ten years in prison.
Before the jury began deliberations, Judge Howard dismissed one juror saying that he had a family tie to the case. The last alternate juror replaced the dismissed juror.
At 7:55 p.m. after deliberating for two and one half-hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of two counts of murder.
As the verdict was read, Susan Smith bowed her head in tears and trembled. The jury appeared to have agreed with the prosecutors who argued that Susan knew what she was doing when she released the emergency brake on her car, allowing it to roll into the lake with her sons inside strapped to their car seats. Prosecutors had argued that Susan killed her sons to rekindle her romance with Tom Findlay, a wealthy boyfriend who told her that he did not want children and the jury agreed with that theory.
The verdict came after five days of testimony and was the first stage in the three-stage process of trial, penalty phase and sentencing. The penalty phase would begin on July 24, 1995.