Crime File

Susan Smith-II Confession and Trial

Mother’s love is unquestioning and unquestionable, but when the same mother turns around to kill her own offspring in cold blood, it is shocking and intriguing at the same time. It, therefore, is extremely important to investigate the events leading to such an unusual crime in totality. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the twisted tale of a mother who killed her young sons.

It was time for the investigators to pin Susan down and get specific answers. Caldwell demanded the truth of Susan, and asked if the children were too fussy and if that was the reason why she killed them. Susan, as expected, got furious at the suggestion and called Caldwell names before storming out of the interview. But that did not dilute the suspicion a bit. Caldwell had noted that when Susan sobbed, which she did many times during the questioning, she sobbed without tears. The FBI agent who conducted the polygraph test on Susan and David also noted that while Susan appeared to cry but she actually made “fake sounds of crying with no tears in her eyes”.

Sheriff Wells and Agent Logan decided to confirm the emerging theory of Susan being a murdering mother, and they got in touch with FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit in this regard and obtained the profile of a typical homicidal mother. As per the profile, the woman had to be most likely in her twenties, had to have grown up or lived in poverty, had to have suffered physical or sexual abuse or both, had to have kept herself from the social support and could be in depressed or suicidal state of mind. The profile also mentioned that such a woman was likely to be experiencing rejection by a lover at the time she commits murder, and that such a woman could have problem seeing and defining herself separate from her kids and might feel burdened by the presence of her kids. The profile also included the observation that the mother may see children as mere extension of herself and her suicidal inclinations may get realized in a filial homicide.

The investigators had made a momentous error in asking the divers to look for the submerged car by the edge of the river because they had assumed that anybody trying to hide the car would send the car into the river at high speed and the experts knew that as counter-intuitive as it might be, the car dashing into the river at high speed does not go far but sinks by the edge of the water body, for when the car hits the water at high speed it creates waves that sink the car straight down. The opposite holds true for a car that just rolls into the river, and the investigators had not considered that possibility, which is why while divers kept looking for the car by the edge of the river, it lay sunk some 100 feet from the edge of the water, having drifted on after being rolled into the river at low speed.

The investigators had not ruled out David and Susan as suspects, but as of then, they did not really have the children or their bodies or the car or a clue as to where to find them. They needed a breakthrough soon.

The investigators were convinced that Susan had something to do with the disappearance of the kids, and they hoped but seriously doubted if the kids were alive. Susan had turned out to be hard nut to crack for the investigators although they had never let up on Susan, and, finally, on November 3, 1995, the ninth day since the disappearance of the children, the efforts paid off. Susan and David had three separate interviews on three different television programs, after which they had to be interviewed by the Union Daily Times. But the interview was cancelled, as the couple was reported exhausted.

At around 12:30 p.m., Susan got ready to go out and told her mother that she and David were going to run errands whereas the truth was that she had been sent for by Sherriff Wells, who wanted her at another place for yet another interview. She came to the interview and narrated the story the same way as before except for a minor but very significant change. The ‘Monarch Mills’ changed to ‘Carlisle’.

The intensive interviews she had been subjected to by the investigators were beginning to wear her down, as the investigators had hoped. This time Sherriff Wells decided to keep the confrontation about her carjacking story on. He told her bluntly that he knew her story was false. He also told her that changing ‘Monarch Mills’ to ‘Carlisle’ was not going to help her because he had undercover office keeping a watch at Carlisle intersection in connection with a drug related investigation, and they had not seen any suspicious activity on the day her kids were allegedly kidnapped.

Finally, Susan broke down. “I am so ashamed, I am so ashamed,” she wailed, head hanging in what looked like shame. She asked for Wells’s gun to shoot herself with. Wells asked why she wanted to take such an extreme step. “You don’t understand, my children are not all right.” She then went on to tell the saga of her crushing loneliness and abject isolation, which she most chronically felt while driving around with her kids in her car along
Highway 49 on the night of October 25, 1994. She had thought of driving her kids to her mother’s house, but she felt that even her mother could not help her miserable emotional state. In short, she disclosed to Wells that she was extremely depressed, and wanted to kill herself together with her kids by driving into the John D. Long lake. She drove to the lake, put her car into neutral and let it roll on but pulled the parking brakes thrice to stop the car. Then she stood outside the car and overcome by extreme grief, released the parking brake and let the car go down the lake. She told that once the car hit the water, she wanted to get it back and undo what she had ended up doing, but there was no taking it back. She insisted during the interview with the investigators that she loved her sons and did not want to harm them, but she ended up killing them in a moment of emotional weakness. Once the car was underwater, she thought up an alibi and ran to McCloud’s house to put it in motion.

They had the confession, and they now knew where to find the car with the kids in it. The divers were sent to look for the vehicle across a wider area under the water. Divers Morrow and Mitchum found the car, and the visibility was a mere twelve inches where the car had been found. They slowly swam around the car and observed that all windows of the Mazda Protégé were rolled up and all of its four doors were closed. Later, Morrow would testify at Susan’s trial that he had seen a “small hand against the window glass”. Sherriff Wells had not told Susan’s parents and David about Susan’s confession because he wanted to be absolutely sure about it, preferably having found the car and the kids, before breaking the unpleasant news. After Sherriff Wells got to know from the divers that the car had been located in the lake and the kids were inside it, he flew to the Russell home to let David and Susan’s parents know about the development. However, by that time an unconfirmed Associated Press report regarding Susan’s confession had already reached them. Wells told the family members all that Susan had told him and also that the car and the kids have been found, but there was no good news. Susan had been arrested and charged with two counts of murder.

Sherriff announced the breakthrough to the press and returned to the John D. Long lake, where the Mazda was being hauled out from the water. The bodies of Michael and Alex were driven to the University of South Carolina Medical Center in Charleston in an ambulance. The autopsies performed on the bodies confirmed that the kids were alive when the car was sent into the lake and had died of drowning.

Susan wrote a letter to David the same night after being arrested. The letter was littered with the “I’m sorry”, and described how miserable she had felt when she committed the horrific act. The letter upset David further. The funeral for Michael and Alex was held on November 6, 1994 at Buffalo Methodist Church. However, the damage to the bodies from having remained submerged in water for days on end was extensive, and for that reason the caskets were kept closed during the visitation and funeral. Smith brothers were buried together in a single casket next to the grave of Danny Smith, their father’s elder brother, in the cemetery behind the Bogansville United Methodist Church.

On the very evening Susan was arrested, her parents, Bev and Linda Russell engaged David Bruck, a Columbia, South Carolina attorney who specialized in death penalty cases. However, he was a little too expensive for the Russells and they had to eventually mortgage their house to retain Bruck for Susan. In turn, David Bruck hired Judith Clarke, another attorney specializing in death penalty cases, to assist him in defending Susan. On the other side, Union County Solicitor Thomas Pope, who happened to be the youngest prosecutor in the State of Carolina, was picked to prosecute Susan Smith.

The Trial
The first hearing in the case was formal and lasted a mere three minutes. Susan was not present during the hearing because she had waived her right to be present and also her right to bail. The next hearing took place on November 18, 1994, before Circuit Judge John Hayes at the request of Solicitor Thomas Pope, who had requested the court to allow state’s request to have Susan examined by a psychologist to ascertain whether or not she could be held responsible for the crime and whether or not she was competent to stand trial. The request was contested by David Bruck, who objected on the ground that the result of such evaluation might be used against Susan if Pope later sought death penalty for her. Judge Hayes did not rule immediately on the request and asked Pope to submit a list of such cases where such requests had been granted. A week later Pope submitted a fifty-eight page brief pursuant to the direction of the court. Judge Hayes declined the request on the grounds that it was premature, particularly when defence attorney David Bruck had not yet disclosed whether or not Susan was to take the plea of insanity.

On January 16, 1995, Pope filed a notice of intention stating that the state was going to seek death penalty for Susan Smith because there were two aggravating circumstances that called for the extreme penalty. One, that Susan had murdered two people by one act, and, two, she had intentionally caused the death of children under the age of eleven.

On January 27, 1995, Judge William Howard slapped a gag order directing the prosecutors, defence attorneys and investigators to not disclose to public or the media any prejudicial information that was yet to be placed before the court. Before the commencement of the trial, Judge Howard, on the motion of the defence, also ruled against the presence of television cameras in the courtroom during the trial. Judge Howard ruled against the presence of the TV cameras in view of the ongoing O.J. Simpson trial, in which the presence of the television cameras had created a live circus-like atmosphere. Judge Howard was determined to keep things in tight control during the trial. On March 23, 1995, a psychiatric evaluation was ordered by Judge Howard, which was to be conducted by Dr. Donald Morgan, a psychiatrist from the University of South Carolina.

…To be continued

Leave a Comment