Condemned To Life

Sordid and tragic and powerfully real, Susan Smith's story begins with sex and ends with the murder of innocents. It is the story of a woman who, to judge by the evidence ofher life, succumbed to her own molestation as a teenager and grew up to become a promiscuous, sexually exploitive adult. Smith ended her marriage to the poor boy who loved her and gambled on a rich boy who didn't. When it all came apart, she committed an act of savagery that defies understanding. She served a pizza dinner to Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, and tenderly strapped them into their car seats. Then she drove out to John D. Long Lake and let her maroon Mazda Protege roll into the reddish-brown water. The car apparently took almost six minutes to disappear-and Michael and Alex, trusting and helpless, can only have died screaming for their mother.

Nothing--not Smith's sad history or blighted hopes, nor any kind of victim chic-can explain that act away. Yet after hearing new and compelling testimony about her tangled life, the same jury that took only 2 1/2 hours to convict Susan Smith on July 22 decided just as quickly to spare her life last week--and voted unanimously. The outcome flatly contradicts current public opinion. Now more than ever, Americans support the death penalty by striking majorities. And a nation that has heard the squalid evidence about Smith's liaisons with four different men, including her own stepfather, voted 63 percent to 28 percent in a NEWSWEEK survey that she should have been put to death. So the trial result is likely to divide Americans just as it divides Union, S.C. "A lot of people in Union are not feeling too good," said Christine Bird, one of many residents who gathered at the courthouse to hear the decision. "They thought she should get a death sentence." The dead boys' father, David Smith, said he and his family were "disappointed" at the verdict. "I'll never forget what Susan has done to me and my family, [and] I even have to say, to her family," Smith said. "But forgive--that's something I'm going to have to deal with, I guess, further on down the road."

The urge to kill in the name of justice poses infernally tricky issues-and the outcome in the Smith case may be the clearest evidence yet of America's persistent ambivalence about capital punishment. Americans seem guilty of vast hypocrisy. The justice system imposes the death penalty far more often than it actually delivers it (page 24). Citizens support the death penalty in general, but frequently refuse to apply it when, as in the Smith case, they are confronted with a face, a name and human frailties that, however lurid, bear at least some resemblance to their own. If a mother who deliberately drowns her children in a pique over a failed romance doesn't deserve to die, who does? Take an eye for an eye, prosecutor Tommy Pope urged the jury. Smith's lawyer, David Bruck, answered with Christ's defense of the adulterous wife in the Gospel according to John. "He that is without sin among you," Bruck said, "let him first cast a stone at her."

Smith cried and hugged Bruck when the verdict was announced. Her melodramatic case had placed her squarely in the limelight since Oct. 25, 1994, the day she reported Michael and Alex abducted by a car-jacker. The steady drip of revelation, each more damning than the last, seemed almost certain to lead to her execution. She lied to police, conned her ex-husband and hood-winked the nation. The emerging facts of her chaotic life--her father's suicide, her molestation by her politically prominent stepfather, her failed marriage and the tabloid prurience of her repeated love affairs-seemed to make her a symbol of small-town decadence. The case appeared tailor made for an ambitious young prosecutor like Tommy Pope, who rejected repeated suggestions that he let Smith plead guilty in return for life in prison. And it brought her David Bruck. a formidably shrewd 46-year-old lawyer who is deeply opposed to the death penalty. After the sentence, Bruck refused to gloat. "There is no good outcome in this case," he said. "This case was an awful case of tragedy from the beginning. It was such an unbearable thing."

Bruck had it exactly right. Despite its steamy undertones--despite the ripe mixture of family dysfunction and sexual shenanigans-the Smith case is ultimately a story of heartbreaking human loss. It was only last week that the true, terrible scope of Smith's dismal world came clear. During the trial's penalty phase, the courtroom became a-battleground for the two competing views of the defendant-the scheming vixen and the emotionally damaged post-adolescent. The witnesses were pivotal figures in Smith's life-men she had slept with, people who'd loved her and, in the case of her ex-husband, someone whose life she had ruined. What the jurors heard was the fullest account yet of why she did it--and in the end, confronted with the pathos of it all, they decided both sides were right. Susan Smith was both perpetrator and victim.

Her descent began with the divorce of her parents in 1977, when Susan was 6 years old. The divorce apparently led her millworker father, Harry Vaughan, to commit suicide one month later, an event that may have helped create the emotional vacuum that has haunted her ever since. Linda Vaughan married stockbroker Beverly Russell, the son of a leading local family, about a year and a half later. The marriage was a step up: Susan and her brothers, Michael and Scotty, moved into a comfortable ranch house in Mount Vernon Estates, an upscale subdivision outside Union.

Russell, 48, was then active in South Carolina Republican politics and in Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition--but he is no longer, and the shattering disclosures triggered by his stepdaughter's prosecution are the reason. According to previously secret records from a state family court, Russell began molesting Susan when she was 15. Although Russell clearly initiated sexual contact, the case file suggests Susan may have led him on. Linda Russell told a social worker that Susan told her "Bev was sitting in the chair watching TV and Susan got in his lap and went to sleep." Then he "slid her bra up and fondled her breast and took her hand and put it on his penis." The report says Linda later asked Beverly about Susan's story "and he didn't deny that it had happened. He told her he felt like some kind of pervert when it happened." Russell signed a statement admitting his conduct and the family sought counseling-but Susan and her mother said they didn't want to prosecute.

Susan graduated from Union High School in 1989 and went to work in the local Winn-Dixie supermarket as a checkout girl. David Smith worked in the store as a produce clerk. Before she and David began to date, Susan told a psychiatrist, she had an affair with a store manager who was subsequently transferred out of town. She was two months pregnant--the child was David's-when they were married on March 15, 1991. They eventually settled down in a brick starter home in Union. Michael was born in 1991, Alex followed in 1993 and Susan gave every appearance of being a doting mother. But the marriage slowly un-raveled. In 1994, Susan sued for divorce, alleging infidelity, and David later counter-sued, also alleging infidelity. (The divorce was granted after her arrest.)

A strapping, silver-haired man, Russell stunned the courtroom by admitting that his consensual involvement with Susan continued intermittently through her marriage and subsequent separation from David Smith. He even admitted to having sexual encounters with Susan as recently as August 1994, less than three months before she killed her sons. The dramatic high pointcame when he read aloud from a letter he'd sent Susan on Father's Day, 1995, when she was already in prison. "You don't have all the guilt in this tragedy," he read, sobbing. "Had I been true to you in my responsibilities, you would have been stronger in yourself, not needing to be constantly supported and reassured emotionally. . . . My heart breaks for what I've done to you, for your pain and for your loss."

It was not her loss alone. The prosecution's main weapon was tear-drenched testimony from a vengeful David Smith, who accepted a box of tissues from Judge William Howard. Smith had stood by his estranged wife during her nine-day charade, and he said he first heard about her confession on television. "I didn't know what to do," he said. "Everything I had planned on, my life with my kids, was gone."

That was the bitter end of a tumultuous, too-early marriage. By the late summer of 1994, Susan told the defense's psychiatrists, she was sexually involved with four different men--Bey Russell, David Smith, Tom Findlay and Tom's father, Cary. (Cary Findlay has denied any involvement with Smith.) Findlay senior owns a company called Conso Inc., which makes interior-decorating products; he is among the wealthiest Union County residents. He hired Smith as an assistant to his executive assistant in 1994, and she got to know his son while working at the Conso plant. Tom Findlay, 28, is a graphic designer who works in his father's firm. He is known to some local young women as "The Catch."

Tom Findlay testified as a prosecution witness at the trial-for in the prosecution's view, he was the real reason Susan killed her boys. Findlay, balding early, is nice-looking if not quite a hunk; he allegedly told investigators that he considered himself "a ladies' man" whose mission in life was "servicing these women." As he told it, he and Susan became lovers in early 1994. He broke it off sometime in March, Findlay said, after David Smith caught them talking on the phone and angrily warned him to stay away from Susan. Concerned for his safety, Findlay avoided Susan from March to September. Then Susan told him she and David were going through with the divorce, Findlay said, and he resumed their affair.

On the weekend of Oct. 15, Tom invited Susan to his father's estate for a hot-tub party. According to sources close to the case, Susan has said she became jealous when Tom began necking with another woman. She flirted with another man, and Tom, to judge by the Dear Jane letter he sent her two days later, was at least somewhat offended. The letter is a classic of its caddish kind; Findlay read it aloud in court.

"Dear Susan," Findlay said. This is "a difficult letter to write because I know how much you think of me . . . you are intelligent, beautiful, sensitive, and possess many other wonderful qualities that I and many other men appreciate. You will without a doubt make some lucky man a great wife. But unfortunately, it won't be me.

"Susan, I could really fall for you," he continued. "But like I have told you before,there are some things about you that aren't suited to me, and yes, I am speaking about your children. . . .

"Susan, I am not mad at you about what happened" at the hot-tub party, Findlay wrote. "But seeing you kiss another man put things back into perspective . . . I would hate for people to perceive you as an unreputable [sic] person. If you want to catch a nice guy like me one day, you have to act like a nice girl."

This smarmy rejection threw Smith into panic. Over the next several days, Findlay testified, they had a series of highly emotional conversations. Their last meetings came on Oct. 25 at the Conso plant. "She was crying--she was very upset," Findlay said. "She proceeded to tell me she had had an affair with her stepfather and she told me she had a sexual relationship with my father . . . I told her the intimate part of our relationship would have to end."

She went to his office later the same day to return an Auburn University sweat shirt that belonged to Findlay. "She said, 'I'm going to give you this; I may not see you again'," Findlay recalled. He told her to keep it: Smith was wearing the shirt when she drove her sons to the lake that evening. Hours later, a co-worker called to ask if he had heard the news about Susan-- and Findlay's first thought was, "Oh my God, she's killed herself."

To prosecutors, Findlay's emphasis on the children was Smith's motive for murder. They argued there was no evidence, as the defense claimed, that Smith had driven to the lake to commit suicide. They made a point of showing jurors the videotaped interviews in which Smith tearfully maintained the kidnapping hoax. Susan Smith chose to do the worst thing a mother can do and covered it up, Pope argued, pushing for the death penalty. He said her family history was just "the abuse excuse."

The jury found otherwise -- a tacit recognition that the core issue was whether Smith was mentally ill. South Carolina's definition of insanity is one of the most restrictive in the nation: it did not permit Smith to plead not guilty by reason of insanity or, more plausibly, temporary, insanity. A team of state psychiatrists certified that Smith was competent to stand trial. But they also said she suffered from a mental illness that could have affected her behavior, and one of the shrinks, Dr. Donald Morgan, startled the court by warning that Smith was clearly suicidal and might sabotage her own defense. Other testimony pointed to the deep shame that stemmed from her incestuous relationship with Russell. The psychiatric view was that Smith is a uniquely fragile person who had concealed her emotional conflicts for years. Killing her sons was a horrifying act that bespeaks a personality crisis: at that moment, she must have been emotionally numb. If Smith in fact was rational, why risk a police investigation? Why not simply give custody of the boys to their father?

The jury was 11-1 in favor of life in prison when it began deliberating her sentence, and the lone hard-liner finally joined the majority. "We all felt like Susan was a really disturbed person," said juror Deborah Benvenuti. "Giving her the death penalty wouldn't serve justice."

Susan Smith has been returned to her tiny cell at the Women's Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C. She has no personal possessions, no contact with other inmates and she wears only paper gowns--a precaution against suicide, because real clothes can be turned into nooses. Barring an appeal, she will be in prison for at least 80 years- condemned not to die, but to live with her ghastly memories.

65% Favor 28% Oppose

Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh if he is convicted of the bombing in Oklahoma City?

79% Favor 16% Oppose


FAVOR OPPOSE Severely abused as a child 48% 58% In an emotional state involving a lover or a family member at the time of the crime 49% 39% Temporarily insane at the time of the crime 46% 46%

19% Only those convicted of murder

28% Only those convicted of the most brutal murders, mass murders and serial killings

31% All those convicted of murder, especially violent crimes and major drug dealing

17% Oppose the death penalty in all cases

Just days after receiving a Dear Jane letter from a boyfriend, Susan Smith lets Alex, 14 months, and Michael, 3, drown in John D. Long Lake

Smith claims a black carjacker stole her Mazda with the two children inside and helps police create a sketch of the suspect. With the boys' at her side, Smith issues a national appeal for help.

Suspicious authorities directly confront Smith after a futile nine-day search. She asks the sheriff to pray with her, then confesses to the murders and tells police where to find the boys.

Stunned by Susan's confession, mourners line the seven-mile route between the church and cemetery as David Smith buries his sons in a single casket, because 'they were just so close'

At a press conference it was announced that Tommy Pope, an aggressive young prosecutor, would seek the death penalty if Smith was found guilty of the boys' murders

Tom Findlay, known as 'The Catch' in Union, testifies that he ended his affair with Susan clays before the murders because they weren't 'suited'--and he wasn't ready to be a father. Smith had told him, 'i will love you for the rest of my life.'

'You don't have all the guilt,' Beverly Russell, Smith's stepfather, says at her trial. He admits molesting Smith before she turned 16-and then continuing a consensual sexual relationship until just weeks before the murders.

A nine-man, three-woman jury unanimously votes for life in prison. Final testimony for the prosecution includes a tearful David Smith saying, 'All my hopes and dreams, everything that I had planned for the rest of my life-it ended that day.'

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts