MOTHER OF ALL CRIMES

How could she? Susan Smith murdered her own children, invented a kidnapper, then confessed. Now the state solicitor wants her to go to the electric chair; and if she escapes that fate, some of her fellow townsfolk in Union, South Carolina, are ready for
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It is three months since Susan Smith drowned her two young sons in the murky waters of John D Long Lake. The crowds of mourners and gawkers along the shore have thinned, but a few dozen people still drive here every day, most of them from the nearby town of Union, South Carolina, where Smith lived. They bring wreaths and ribbons, flowers and poems, toys and balloons. They place these things on the lakeshore and then stare out across the water. They exchange snippets of information, often embellished, to help each other picture the scene here on the night of 25 October 1994. It was cold and dark, they say, although the weather reports indicate a mild, moonlit night. She got here just before midnight, they say, although police records maintain that it was closer to 8.45pm.

According to Susan Smith's confession, her sons, Michael, aged three, and Alex, 14 months, were asleep in the back of her car, strapped into their safety seats. She parked on a gravel ramp leading down into the water, got out of the car, and then disengaged the handbrake. She has never said if she stood and watched as the car rolled down into the water and drowned her sons, but it has become an accepted fact in Union that she saw the last desperate struggles, the terrified faces slipping underwater.

"How could she do it?" The question is repeated and repeated along the lakeshore. For these people, Susan Smith is not a name in the papers, or an image on a television screen. This is a small, close-knit, God-fearing community, and 23-year-old Susan Smith was one of their own. They have known her since she was a baby, and know her parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and in-laws. Her friends and colleagues describe her as a friendly, loving person and a devoted mother, who enjoyed working with handicapped children. Invariably, they remark upon her beautiful, open smile, and can find nothing in her character to explain her actions.

Union has not experienced a crime of this magnitude in living memory. It is a placid, slow-drawling Southern textile town of 10,000, serviced by more than 50 churches and only one bar. American flags hang in the front yards, Spanish moss in the shade trees. In normal times, the town's passions are aroused chiefly by high school sports teams, and the sight of its 120-piece marching band playing ``Dixie'' at a Fourth of July parade. People sleep with their doors unlocked and crime usually means a teenager caught smoking pot or a handbag stolen from a parked car.

Nothing is more precious to the people of Union than babies, born or unborn. So for them, Susan Smith's crime is a doubly terrible one. Now, though, their anguish has been compounded by its proposed punishment. The state circuit solicitor, Tommy Pope, has announced that he will be seeking the death penalty, by means of the electric chair. Susan Smith is charged with two counts of murder and, if convicted, will be the first woman to be executed in South Carolina since the Forties.

The announcement has sparked a bitter debate in Union, conducted entirely in Biblical terms. Both sides of it are represented here at the lakeshore. Kenneth Sykes and his wife Dora Lee belong to the Old Testament eye-for- an-eye school of opinion: "She deserves something worse than the chair for what she done." Mr and Mrs Sykes - and there are many like them in Union - call for a more traditional mode of Southern justice: a lynch mob to drag Susan Smith out of jail, strap her into a car and drown her in the lake. In fact, one cannot spend a day in the town without hearing the phrase, "If they don't get her on the inside, we'll damn sure get her on the outside."

Others at the lakeside, like Michael Calhoun, a retired textile worker from nearby Greenville, heed the New Testament's message of forgiveness. "She can't have been in her right mind to do such a terrible thing," he says. "I feel sorry for her, I really do. We have nothing to gain by putting this poor, tortured woman to death."

The self-appointed guardian of the lake is a man called Roy Corn. His clothes are grimy, his beard greying and unkempt. He spends his days here, keeping a careful inventory of the flowers and tokens. "I know those little boys are in heaven now," he says, "but I don't understand why they had to die. It sure is a hard one to figure, a momma doing a thing like that to her kids." Corn invites me back to his house, a ramshackle affair in the woods, where he has collected piles of newspapers and documents relating to the case, and compiled a two-and-a-half hour video of the television coverage, interspersed with moments of silence for Michael and Alex. We sip iced tea, and settle down to watch. I ask him to pause on a police composite sketch of a black male in a woollen knit cap.

This was Smith's work, the alibi she created. From the gravel ramp at the lake, Susan Smith had rushed that night to a nearby house. Weeping hysterically, she told the people inside, "Please help me! A black man has got my kids and my car!" He had, she said, jumped into her car at a red light, shoved a gun in her face, threatened to kill her, and then driven away with her children. Later that night, she described him to a police artist, and a nationwide search began for the "Union carjacker".

The sketch depicts a man in profile, his face devoid of expression, emotion, distinguishing features or personality - "a smudge with a hat on", as one police expert described it. To a few of the investigators, it seemed suspicious that Smith recalled no details of the man's face, but for most white Americans, the black skin and the ski cap were enough.

The crime of carjacking - violating the hallowed sanctuary of the automobile - has replaced mugging in the national demonology, but, essentially, the carjacker is the same figure: a shadowy black man, with sinister headwear and a gun. Susan Smith's story confirmed the deepest fears of white Americans, and, overwhelmingly, they believed her.

Race relations in Union are typical of a small, Southern town. There is pervasive racial prejudice, a yawning economic disparity between blacks and whites, but relatively close social ties compared with the big Northern cities. A black folk saying summarises the difference between Southern and Northern racism: "In the South, they don't care how close we get, so long as we don't get too high. In the North, they don't care how high we get, so long as they don't have to live too close to us."

Many of Union's black residents knew Susan Smith and her children. They shared the same schools and supermarkets, ate at the same restaurants, cheered for the same sports teams. A few were sceptical about her story - "Black man'd have to be crazy to steal a car with two white kids in it; he wouldn't make it 20 miles through South Carolina," as one man told me - but for the most part, the local black community put aside its suspicions and joined the search for the missing children. Black church leaders led prayers for the boys and distributed the composite sketch among their community, asking if anyone knew this man.

It was a time of coming together for Union, of rallying behind a tender young mother in her hour of distress. Church groups held candle- lit prayer vigils, and cooked up mountains of food. Yellow ribbons were tied to the lampposts and parking meters. Volunteers, both black and white, combed the nearby forests, calling out the children's names, and a team of divers was dispatched to John D Long Lake. They dived twice and found nothing.

"Everyone was expecting a happy ending," recalls Don Wilder, the genteel publisher of the Union Daily News. "We're good Americans, we love happy endings. John Wayne always rides to the rescue. Captain Kirk always says, `Beam me up, Scottie'. The whole county, black and white, was pulling together for those children."

On Roy Corn's videotape, I watch footage of Susan Smith, shot the morning before she confessed. She is standing before a bank of microphones, and choking back the tears: "I want to say to my babies that your Momma loves you so much... And you guys have gotta be strong because I just know, I just feel in my heart, that you're OK. You've got to take care of yourselves. And your Momma and Daddy are going to be right here waitin' on you when you get home. I love you so much."

That afternoon, at 3pm on 3 November, 20 church ministers gathered on the courthouse steps to make an impassioned plea to the carjacker. A large crowd of journalists and townsfolk had turned out to witness it. Instead, Sheriff Howard Wells took to the courthouse steps and delivered the devastating news: Susan Smith had confessed to drowning the two boys. The media and the townsfolk rushed out to the lake, to watch the weeping divers emerge from the lake with two small bodies. (The car was eventually found nearly 100 feet from the shore, in 18 feet of water.)

The people of Union were devastated. Some wept and prayed in the streets. Others - many others - tore down the yellow ribbons, and bayed for blood. The next day, a crowd gathered outside the courthouse and screamed at Susan Smith as she was driven to jail: "Murderer!" "Babykiller!" "You'll burn in hell!"

A mood of hatred and vengeance swept through the town. Blacks were angry that Smith's story had been believed so readily. Moderates called for more prayer and forgiveness, but found themselves marginalised in a lynch mob atmosphere, the tenor of which is well illustrated in a letter written by Barry Tipton to the Union Daily Times, calling for "swift and final retribution" before the trial:

"This sweet little mother purposely and diabolically planned and computed the torturous death of her beautiful babies, carried it out methodically, and without mercy or compassion watched the faces of her babies as they suffered and faced in certain horror their deaths, then went into the community with false tears streaming from her angelic face, asking for prayer and invoking the name of the Lord on national TV, enticing her family and friends into their total support, while all the while knowing that her children were at the bottom of a lake, drowned and murdered so she could have sex without their interference..."

Sex without their interference. This was the fragment that engaged the fundamentalists, a reference to Tom Findley, Susan Smith's boyfriend, who had broken off their relationship a week before the killings, in part because he hadn't wanted to take on a ready-made family. Findley is the most eligible bachelor in Union, the wealthy, 27-year-old son of J Cary Findley, chief executive at the Conso Products Company, where Susan Smith worked. Tom was something of a small-town Lothario, handsome and outgoing, renowned for his hot-tub parties. The secretaries at Conso nicknamed him "The Catch". And Susan had got him - until, that is, the week before the killings.

Tom Findley has since left the country - he is in England "on business" - and his only statement about Smith was released by his lawyer: "One of the reasons for my termination of the relationship was that I was not ready to assume the important responsibilities of being a father. However, that was far from the only reason for terminating the relationship and certainly was not the most important. At no time did I suggest to Ms Smith that her children were the only obstacle to any potential relationship with her."

To the angry, betrayed townsfolk, there was enough here to suggest a motive. Susan Smith was a cold-hearted gold-digger, who had killed her children to marry a rich kid. It is suspicion tapped by Tommy Pope, the state solicitor, and a theme taken up by Newt Gingrich, now the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who blamed "Sixties counterculture" for the crime - presumably for eroding family values to the point of child murder. On 7 November, just before the Congressional elections, he said, "I think that the mother killing the two child-ren in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things... The only way you get change is to vote Republican."

It would be churlish to chastise Newt Gingrich for trying to make political capital out of the tragedy - it has been observed that most American politicians would nail their grandmother to a tree for a few votes - but evidently, Newt had never been to Union. "The City of Hospitality", as Union is known, is exactly the kind of community he idealises: hardworking, church-going, rooted in traditional family values and virulently opposed to abortion.

"A lot of you media types come down here expecting to find a small Southern town out of a Hollywood movie, with a fat, tobacco-chewin' Sheriff, men in white hoods, and dark secrets in the woods," says Don Wilder. "It really isn't like that here. This is a community in the old-fashioned sense. A lot of people are saying that they would have gladly taken in Susan Smith's kids if she didn't want them. Everyone knows everyone else here, and people look out for each other. It's really a nice place to live."

Susan Smith certainly seemed to think so; she was an active, involved, successful member of this society. Although she was separated from her husband, David, her life appeared full and rewarding. She had a good job, two beautiful children and a ranchhouse in a salubrious part of Union. She was taking English literature and aerobics at the local college, and every Sunday she brought her children along to worship at the Buffalo United Methodist Church.

But beneath the surface, she was clearly depressed and unhappy. When she was five, Susan's parents had divorced. When she was six, her father committed suicide. At Union High School, where she was voted "most friendly" in the class of '89, and worked with handicapped children in her spare time, she filed an allegation of sexual molestation against her Bible- thumping stepfather - and made the first of two suicide attempts.

At 19, there was a shotgun wedding to David Smith, a colleague at the Winn Dixie supermarket, where Susan had started work while still at school. For a while, marriage and motherhood seemed to make her happy, but the marriage turned sour, ruined by her husband's philandering. They finally separated in August 1994 and Susan filed for divorce. She had custody of the children, got a job at Conso Products, and began a passionate romance with the boss's son, Tom Findley. And then he, too, rejected her.

Perhaps, as some suggest, Susan killed her children in a cold, calculating bid to win Findley back. More likely, this final rejection plunged her back into despair, and turned her thoughts again to suicide. Psychologists describe a "suicide by proxy" syndrome, in which a severely depressed woman will kill her children in a failed attempt to kill herself. According to Professor Richard Geller of the University of Rhode Island, "The mother is so enmeshed in the lives of her children that she doesn't know where her life ends and theirs begins." In her handwritten confession, decorated with drawings of hearts, Smith said that she was planning to kill herself and take the children with her, so that they might be spared a motherless childhood, and the family happily re-united in heaven. At the last moment, she says, she found herself outside the car, pushing it into the water.

In Union, where abortion is an abomination, her crime was unthinkable. Even those who doubted her story about the carjacker never considered that a mother would actually kill her own children, though as a crime it is not, in fact, that unusual: the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse estimates that 700 American mothers kill their children every year, with about 50 making up stories of abductions.

"If it had happened in New York or California, I guess it wouldn't have been such a big deal," says Shelly McCloud, a young mother I met at Gene's Hamburgers, "but things like that just don't happen around here. I think she's guilty as hell, and I hope they fry her."

The prosecuting attorney, Tommy Pope, is an ambitious man in his early thirties, and this will be the biggest case of his career. The position of state circuit solicitor is an elective office, and if he succeeds in sending Susan Smith to the electric chair, he is assured of political advancement. Defending her will be David Bruck, an experienced lawyer from Columbia, South Carolina. He is a fervent opponent of the death penalty, and it is predicted that he will present a defence of insanity. If he wins, there are plenty of people in Union ready to take matters into their own hands; nothing enrages the Old Testament types so much as the prospect of Susan Smith escaping the death penalty because of some silver-tongued lawyer with a lot of psychological mumbo-jumbo.

Susan Smith spends her days alone now, in a cell six foot by 14, with a blanket, a Bible and pen and paper. She is considered a suicide risk and kept under 24-hour video surveillance. According to a statement issued by Mr Bruck, "She is lost in an ocean of grief and guilt, and there is no relief. When she falls asleep, she has nightmares about her children. She says over and over again she wishes she would just die so she wouldn't have to hurt anymore." He says she talks to pictures of Michael and Alex, and writes them "desperate letters".

This may be an accurate description of her state of mind - or it may not. It is clearly in Mr Bruck's interest to create a picture of his client as suicidal and demented, especially if he does choose an insanity defence. But the fundamentalists' temperament, so prevalent in Union, seeks certainty in all things and reacts with fury when these certainties are challenged. Their world is an unrelenting battlefield between good and evil, and, for them, no earthly covenant is more sacred to them than the bond between mother and baby. By breaking that bond, Smith has drawn the full force of their ferocity. By putting her to death, they hope to avenge the death of her innocent children and thus beat back the forces of evil.

From a standpoint outside this world view, the death penalty seems particularly pointless in this case. As Don Wilder says, "Do mothers really need a deterrent from killing their children? And if punishment is the motive, would it not punish a suicidal woman more to let her live in prison with what she has done?"

The more moderate voices in Union, such as the Reverend Mark Long of the Buffalo United Methodist Church, are appalled by the lust for Susan Smith's blood. "Make no mistake," he tells me, "we are being tested by Satan. He has sent the demons of hate and viciousness into this community, and I pray that we have the strength and courage to resist them. Jesus teaches us to find love and forgiveness in our hearts, and that is what we must do for Susan Smith."

"People here desperately want closure," says Don Wilder. "A means of settling this tragedy, so they can get on with their lives. Some of them look for it in revenge, in the death of Susan Smith. For others, it's forgive and forget. This is a very devout community, and a lot of people are telling themselves that the ultimate judge in this case will be God. What the courts will decide is whether she meets her Maker sooner or later."

Barring a plea bargain - or the unlikely event of a successful lynching party - Susan Smith's trial will be held in July at the Union County courthouse. And whether she meets her maker all too soon will depend on politics and Tommy Pope's eloquence.

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