UNION COUNTY, SC (WIS) - John D. Long Lake in Union is closed because of a fish overpopulation problem in the lake. The closing is not because it was the path a young Union area mother named Susan Smith used 20 years ago to commit crimes that stunned the world.
Sheriff Howard Wells arrested and charged Susan Smith with two counts of murder in November 1994.
The crime that shocked the nation
On Oct. 25 1994, Smith knocked on the door of a home not far from the lake, saying she was the victim of a carjacking while stopped at a red light on Highway 49. Smith claimed the carjacker was a black man wearing a plaid jacket and a knit cap, and that he took her Mazda Protégé with her toddlers, Alex and Michael, inside.
For the next nine days, the search for the car, the boys and the truth riveted the nation. Questions and suspicions were also rising for investigators as they probed deeper into Smith’s claims.
Former FBI and State Law Enforcement Division agent Pete Logan started to sense something wasn’t right after Smith walked out of the first in a series of polygraph tests.
“That was a key to it, when she just got up and walked out,” Logan said. “Her body language, the way she acted. It was pretty obvious that she was withholding information at that time.”
And yet, Smith went on national TV, standing beside her husband David, and pleaded for the return of their children. Many people were troubled by what they saw.
“There was no question about it,” Logan said. “She was putting on a good show, but it didn’t look sincere. That was pretty obvious to me.”
Soon, Smith’s story started to come apart.
Logan’s polygraphs indicated she lied more than once. Smith then changed a significant part of that story. She now claimed the carjacking happened in the town of Carlisle.
Logan and Wells knew it was time to push the case forward.
“We were going to tell her that we had a surveillance going on in Carlisle, and she wasn’t there,” Logan said. “So it was not truthful. And when the sheriff confronted her with that, she broke down, hit the floor, started crying and confessed to what she did with the kids.”
Divers returned to the lake they already searched, but this time, they found the Mazda with two small bodies inside.
As the nation grieved, prosecutors started building a complex case that drilled into Smith’s upbringing, relationships and psychological issues. They also had to know exactly how the car rolled into the lake.
In May 1995, investigators took the car back to the boat ramp and let it slip into the water with timers and cameras rolling.
“It speaks for itself,” said Wells, in May 1995. “You’ve seen what’s taken place here today. Like I say, there was no other way to answer some of those questions. And that’s what we’re here for.”
Former 16th Circuit Solicitor Tommy Pope reviewed all the facts in the case.
“Say it was a botched suicide and as soon as she did it, she realized I shouldn’t have done it,” Pope said. “For one, of course, when she showed up at the house, she wasn’t wet, so I think that refutes that. But let’s say the car went straight down and there wasn’t anything to do. Well it took about 6 minutes, you know, of floating and turning and turning up, you know, to at least make an attempt to save those boys’ lives. That was important to me.”
The facts convinced Pope to seek the death penalty.
“Although a prosecutor does not have to prove motive, ultimately, Susan Smith chose the most selfish of acts,” Pope said.
Two months later, reporters from across the nation descended on the Union courthouse for the start of Smith’s trial. Across the street in his shoe repair shop, Howard Free watched the spectacle unfold. Like many African-Americans, he felt the sting of Smith’s false claims about a black kidnapper.
“Most blacks in this town felt the same way that I did,” Free said. “It just didn’t sound right at first, OK? And looking at her on TV with no tears and taking two babies? Them guys don’t take no babies.”
Susan Smith goes to trial
Defending Smith were two University of South Carolina Law School graduates with strong opposition to capital punishment. Lead attorney David Bruck and Judy Clarke made it their mission to save Smith from death row.
The Smith trial started in the shadow of another even more highly publicized criminal case – the trial of O.J. Simpson. The circus atmosphere surrounding Simpson helped move Smith’s defense and Judge William Howard to shut down TV coverage in Union. Simpson’s trial took nearly a year, but Smith’s was just 18 days.
In less than three hours of deliberations, the Union jury voted to send Smith to prison for life.
Bruck, who is now a law professor in Virginia, declined comment for this story.
However, Pope shared his perspective of this case, two decades after the crime.
“You know back then it was shocking that a mother could do this,” Pope said. “I’m thinking I don’t know what’s shocking any more form a public standpoint. So I don’t know that Smith delivered a lesson. Or maybe that was just the front end, unfortunately, of another bad reality.”
Where they are today
The memorials of Alex and Michael Smith still stand near John D. Long Lake just outside Union, even though the time and weather have taken a toll on the markers. A picture of the boys is missing from one marker and the solar-powered glass angle on top is gone.
Also gone for 15 years now is the boat ramp that led to so much horror and grief. Dismantled by the State after seven more people drowned there. Most of the victims were children. All of that happened in the wake of the Susan Smith tragedy.
But toys, shells and pennies left at the monuments indicate some visitors have not forgotten what happened to the Smith boys. Neither has Logan, who played a key role in getting a confession from Smith. The veteran federal and state agent recalls the effort it took to break the case and later to put aside his own emotions.
“It wasn’t until after it was all over and I was home, and I believe at that time my wife asked me, ‘Why are you so quiet?’” Logan said. “And I didn’t want to talk about it particularly. That affected me for a few days. The devastation of what happened to the kids.”
Logan remains active in law enforcement, but now he works on public corruption matters with the state Attorney General’s Office.
Lead prosecutor Tommy Pope was just 32 when the Smith probe started and was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.
“You really had to keep it in perspective and you had to remember that your job, one, was to try the case,” Pope said. “You could do 400 interviews, and it didn’t mean you didn’t have to put up the witness or prepare the documents. And so it really became important to focus on the task at hand.”
Pope is now in private practice, a Republican lawmaker and pondering a run for governor in four years.
Smith’s attorneys are keeping a much lower profile.
David Bruck is teaching law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He is still a nationally known death penalty opponent, but Bruck declined WIS’ invitation to weigh-in on the Smith case.
Co-counsel Judy Clarke was also not available for comment. But since Smith’s case, Clarke has defended a “Who’s Who” of high-visibility criminal figures.
Among them are the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynksi and Zacarias Moussaoui, who was involved in 9-11. She has also defended Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, Jared Lee Loughner – the man who shot 19 people including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords – and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, who is accused in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Last year, Clarke told a Loyola Law School audience that Smith’s case was not an evil one, but about sadness and despair. Clarke said Smith made a “terrible decision with a confused mind and a heart without hope.”
In one of the most surprising twists after the trial, the sheriff widely praised for his handling of the Smith case found himself in legal trouble. Federal prosecutors accused Wells of lying to investigators about his income taxes. One called Wells “a glorified loan shark with a badge.”
Four years ago, Wells was led away in handcuffs to serve a 90-day prison sentence.
The boys’ father, David Smith, wrote a book shortly after the killings. He later remarried and has two more children.
Then, there’s Smith, herself. Now in her early 40’s, she has racked up a number of prison disciplinary issues.
State Department of Corrections records show repeated violations for things, including marijuana possession and mutilation. Also, two corrections officers were punished for having sex with Smith. She has lost canteen, phone and visitation privileges for as much as a full year.
She has been held at the Leath facility in Greenwood since 2003 and is eligible for parole in 10 years.
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