Mother on trial for her life over killing of sons

JOHN CARLIN

Washington

A murder trial begins today in the little town of Union, South Carolina, where the suspense centres not on whether the defendant is guilty but whether she will face the electric chair or spend the rest of her days in a mental hospital.

It is common cause that Susan Smith drowned her two sons, aged three and 14 months, at the bottom of a lake. She confessed her guilt nine days after convincing an outraged American public in a series of television appearances that the two boys had been kidnapped by a black carjacker.

The defence argues that Mrs Smith has herself been the victim of a tortured family life marked by her parents' divorce when she was six, and incidents of suicide, incest and betrayal. "Only someone who is crazy, who has something wrong with her head, could do this to her own children," says her attorney.

The prosecution is expected to portray her as a manipulative monster with a history of lies, self-seeking and deceit. Mrs Smith's husband, David, stood by her before her confession, believing the story that a black man had driven off with the children. Now divorced, he is among those who want to see her dead. The predisposition of the US media to believe Mrs Smith's story, tapping as it did into stereotypical images of black men as criminals, caused uproar among black leaders at the time.

Anticipating a soap-opera series' worth of salacious anecdotes, the media have invaded Union. Scores of television trucks clog the streets and the T-shirts are already on sale. The event may even upstage the OJ Simpson trial for the first few weeks.

Nearly every man Mrs Smith loved, the court is expected to hear, betrayed her in one way or another. When she was 15 she was molested by her stepfather, a local right-wing politician active in the Christian Coalition. When she killed her sons, on 25 October last year, she was divorcing her husband and had just broken up with her lover, a wealthy man called Tom Findlay.

Her father, Harry Ray Vaughan, was perhaps the one man she loved the most. But he committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest four months after his wife ran off with another man. For years afterwards Mrs Smith kept a large photograph of her father and a tape recording of his voice in a drawer in her bedroom, a friend said.

Shortly after the birth of her first son she had an affair and her husband retaliated by having an affair of his own. They were reconciled, had their second son in August 1993 and four months later Mrs Smith began her affair with Mr Findlay. On 18 October last year Mr Findlay informed her that the relationship was over.

The boys' grandfather, Charles Smith, agrees with his son that she deserves the death penalty. "She is a known liar and a confessed killer. She wasn't crazy," he said. He believes - and it is a point the prosecution is expected to argue - that she killed her boys in a desperate last bid to reclaim the affections of her lover, who allegedly had told her he wanted to end the relationship because he did not want responsibility for her children.

In a pre-trial hearing, the judge handling the case found Mrs Smith competent to stand trial for murder, although he conceded that she might suffer from a mental disorder. According to South Carolina law she could be sentenced to death even if the court finds her to be mentally ill.

Leading article, page 14

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