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Susan Smith's Kids, Still Dead After All These Years

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Last Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the murders of two toddlers, Michael and Alex Smith, by their mother, Susan Smith.  Ms. Smith was having an affair and hoped to run off with a man who didn't want to be burdened with kids  --  who can, after all, be quite a load at that age.  She dealt with this by strapping them in seat belts in her car, which she then rolled into a lake.  

In one of the more spectacular miscarriages of justice I can remember, the jury rejected a death sentence and gave her life.

She is taking full advantage.  This story, from ABC news, is chock full of lessons for those of us interested in criminal law, and capital cases in particular. 
The story starts:

A South Carolina mother sentenced to life in prison for killing her two young sons never planned to kill them and instead intended to end her own life, according to a letter she wrote to a Columbia newspaper.

"I had planned to kill myself first and leave a note behind telling what had happened," Susan Smith said in a letter to The State newspaper. "I didn't believe I could face my family when the truth was revealed."

I will stand to be corrected by abolitionists if I'm mistaken here, but I think that if you're planning to kill yourself instead of your kids, you strap yourself in the car and leave them out of it.

The case incensed the black community because Smith claimed a black man carjacked her and drove off with the children.

Is Ms. Smith related to Dylann Roof?

In the letter, reported in Wednesday's newspaper editions, Smith wrote that she loved 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex and had not planned to kill them.

"Something went very wrong that night. I was not myself," she wrote. "I was a good mother and I loved my boys. ... There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind."

I'm betting that the only truthful proposition among those statements is that "something went very wrong that night."  When two little boys get murdered, then, yes, something has gone wrong.

Other than that, it's difficult to imagine more flagrant lying, with the possible exception of the lies trotted out at her trial. Zealous defense, dontcha know.

Smith said she only lied about the kidnapping because she didn't know what to tell people about their deaths.

I am not making this up.

The letter was not Smith's first communication from prison. She corresponded with Keira V. Williams, over a period of months, for her book, "Gendered Politics in the Modern South: The Susan Smith Case and the Rise of a New Sexism," published in 2012. It focuses more on the example of Smith's case in gender and politics.

There are many reasons to support the death penalty.  One of them  --  far, far down the list but still there  --  is that executed killers cannot pollute public discourse with sanctimonious letters about how they were really the victim.  

And if someone wants to torture me, they could make me read "Gendered Politics in the Modern South: The Susan Smith Case and the Rise of a New Sexism." Must be a real doozie. 

Smith also submitted a handwritten appeal of her case in 2010, arguing unspecified allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and said she was abused by her ex-husband.

She did not detail the abuse and a prosecutor who tried her said an investigation did not find any wrongdoing by her ex-husband.

In Ms. Smith's defense, I have to admit that it's simply SOP nowadays to accuse the prosecutor of misconduct.  No details needed.  No truth needed, either.  This has become a routine and accepted tactic among the capital defense bar (and, more and more, the defense bar generally). Smearing the opposition is justified, so the theory goes, because, "I'm trying to keep the state from killing my client."

And then the finishing touch:

Gov. Nikki Haley that year also denied a request from Oprah Winfrey to interview Smith in prison. Winfrey had been pursuing the request for years.

You knew Oprah was going to show up in here, right?  

Yes, I admit it, I've been having fun with this story, as much as a person can have "fun" with the remnants of something so ghastly.  But my ridicule has a point.

Those of us who support the death penalty are accused every day, in high-handed, holier-than-thou tones, of nativism, barbarism and savagery.  That's for starters.  This is accepted wisdom in most of academia and much of the press. We're on the wrong side of history, say those who think they possess a crystal ball in addition to Vast Moral Superiority. We're in league with thuggish nations like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia (the otherwise PC-required "respect for Islam" seems to get left on the editing room floor in these criticisms). We execute innocent people by the boatload, although exactly how many and who varies from day to day and source to source.

All this is so much tripe, for reasons Kent and I have stated, at this point, hundreds of times.

But there is a moral dimension to the 20th anniversary of the Susan Smith murders, one that abolitionists  --  for all their earnest (and often sincere) advocacy  -- overlook.  That dimension occupies the center of this debate:  

There is a line, a boundary if you will, between civilized life and the terrain that lies beyond.  There are various names for that terrain  -- hell, evil, chaos, what have you. The name is not important.  The boundary is.

A mother who intentionally kills two helpless, blameless, defenseless children has walked past that boundary.  If society cares a whit about maintaining it, it will close the door behind her.  It will close it for justice, for resolve, and for the sake of other blameless and defenseless people who have no protection beyond what we have the determination to give them. But closing it is what needs doing, and the death penalty closes the door like no other means we possess.

It didn't happen in Susan Smith's case.  But keeping it as the answer to future excursions beyond the boundaries of civilized life  --  whether by a Beltway sniper, who murders at random and for fun;  a Jihadist bomber, who shreds an eight year-old for the Glory of his God; or a mother who drowns her terrified little boys in a betrayal of inexpressible grotesqueness  -- keeping the ultimate punishment for such horrors is the mission to which serious people, whether they like it or not, are called.





2 Comments

I think I'd almost rather hear from Mumia Abu-Jamal than Susan Smith.

We'll never know, but Susan Smith may have escaped the death penalty due to a cowardly ruling by the trial judge. The prosecution wanted to show the jury a tape showing a recreation of the drowning. The judge excluded it due to "prejudice." Of course, the harm to Susan Smith would have flowed directly from the probative value of the proffered evidence. I believe, that had the jury seen just how long it took and just how long Susan Smith had to save the boys, she would have gotten the death penalty she richly deserved.

I'm not sure who is more repulsive-Susan Smith (I am not the monster people think I am) or Oprah for having the temerity to give this "mother" further undue publicity.

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