Will They Kill Susan Smith?

Her chin dropped to her chest and she seemed to cry softly as the verdicts were read aloud-and then Susan Smith, convicted on two counts of murder for the incomprehensible savagery of the drowning of her baby boys in a nearby lake, went back to jail to await the real climax of her trial. That will be the trial's penalty phase, which is likely to take the better part of this week at the old county courthouse in Union, S.C. The same jury that found Smith guilty will decide whether she should be sentenced to life in prison or death, either in the electric chair or by lethal injection. The core issue is which of two very different portraits of Susan Smith is most credible. Is she the selfish, manipulative, sexually exploitive woman the prosecutors see? Or is she, as the defense claims, the deeply troubled survivor of a blighted marriage and a thwarted love affair--a woman who was sexually abused as a teenager and who had attempted suicide twice before?

Smith's conviction last weekend, after a two-week trial that seemed a model of brisk judicial efficiency, came after the nine-man, three-woman jury had deliberated less than three hours. The jury, in fact, had very little to decide, since Smith's lawyers never denied that she had killed Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, by strapping them into their car seats and driving her maroon Mazda down the boat ramp into John D. Long Lake. Prosecutor Tommy Pope said Smith was "running up the hill with her hands over her ears . . . so she couldn't hear those babies crying out her name, crying for their father, while they went in that lake." Defense lawyer Judy Clark, arguing that a depressed Smith had been contemplating suicide when she drove to the lake, said, "This is not a case about evil. It is a case about despair and tragedy."

The jury didn't buy it--possibly because Smith, during nine suspenseful days last October, hoodwinked the town and the national news media with a lurid fabrication seemingly drawn from tabloid crime re-ports--that her children had been abducted by a black car-jacker. During their deliberations, the jurors once again watched two tapes of Smith's bravura performance before the TV cameras, then voted unanimously for murder.

Ominous massage: Her tearful, detailed lying--a calculated attempt to conceal a horrific crime-may spell trouble for Smith's defense team when it tries to save her life this week. Former prosecutor Dick Harpootlian saw the same ominous message in the jurors' body language as the verdicts were read. "Those jurors just stared at her," Harpootlian said. "They didn't look at the ceiling, didn't look at their toes, didn't look at the clerk." It was, he said, "like something out of [Stephen King's] 'Children of the Corn'--look at you and you're dead. It was chilling to watch how adamant they were."

This week's hearing may be far more gruesome than the trial. South Carolina courts generally allow more graphic evidence during the penalty phase of a murder trial, and Pope is surely ready for this one. He has a videotaped re-enactment of the Mazda's slow and deadly glide across the lake; it took six excruciating minutes and, as Smith told police when she was arrested, little Michael was awake as the murky water swallowed him and his baby brother. Pope can introduce photographs of the crime scene and he can call divers who recovered the bodies. The big question is whether Smith herself will testify, and more important, whether her soap-operatic life story can elicit sympathy from the jury. Her best hope lies in the fact that it will take only a single dissenting vote to block the death penalty-and consign her to Fife in prison instead.