Susan Smith made 'conscious decision' to kill sons in lake

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The Independent Online

New York

The young mother who last autumn tricked the US into believing her two infant sons had been abducted by a car-jacker took a "conscious decision" to murder them by sending them to their death in a lake, prosecutors said yesterday.

At the start of the trial of Susan Smith, 23, in Union, South Carolina, the prosecution said that she knew exactly what she was doing when she drove to a lake outside the city and rolled her car into its waters with her two boys, three-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex, strapped inside.

Ms Smith, who faces the death penalty, confessed to the killings, but only after claiming for nine days - including in nationwide television appeals - that she had been stopped while driving at night by a man she said was black and that he had sped off with her children.

Ms Smith's defence lawyers also gave opening statements yesterday in the hope of persuading the jury that she is "guilty but mentally ill" and that the boys perished as the result of a failed suicide attempt by their mother. The defence decided against an insanity plea.

In testimony before the judge on Monday, police officials said they became suspicious of Ms Smith's car-jacking story at an early stage, partly because of how she sobbed when telling the story. According to David Espie, an FBI agent she "made sounds of crying, but there was no water, no tears, nothing".

In court yesterday Keith Giese, for the prosecution, argued that Ms Smith killed the children because she believed it would allow her to continue a relationship with Tom Findlay, son of a wealthy local industrialist. Jurors are likely to be shown a letter from Mr Findlay to the defendant, written before the boys' death, saying he was not ready to take on the responsibility of a family.

"For nine days in the fall of 1994, Susan Smith looked this country in the eye and lied," Mr Giese told the court. Ms Smith confessed finally on 3 November to the local sheriff, Howard Wells, after he prayed with her. After owning up to what she had done, she asked for his gun to kill herself.

In his efforts to secure the death penalty for Ms Smith, Mr Giese went on yesterday: "She knew right from wrong. She could control her action if she wanted to, and she did not. This was a conscious decision by Smith to kill her children. This is a case of I, I, I; me, me, me."

But Judy Clarke, for the defence, said that Ms Smith was "deeply troubled" at the time of the murder and had intended to kill herself with the boys. "She believed the children should go with her, but the body wills to live and Susan jumped out of the car," she said.

"When we talk about Susan's life, we're not trying to gain your sympathy, we're trying to gain your understanding."

Even if Ms Smith is found guilty but mentally ill, the death penalty could still be applied.

Since the fact of the children's drowning in the car is not in dispute, the trial is expected to be brief, perhaps ending by next week.