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U.S. News Year in Review

Susan Smith Trial It was a crime that devastated a small South Carolina town and horrified a nation. Susan Smith had confessed to doing the unthinkable, killing her two young sons by strapping them in their car seats and rolling the car into the John D. Long Lake.

Smith appeared in a Union, South Carolina court in January, where her lawyer, David Bruck, said Smith would not enter a plea in the case. A plea of not guilty was then entered on her behalf.

The prosecution, led by 32-year old Tommy Pope, announced it would seek the death penalty for Smith. As her trial began in July, the facts of the crime were never in doubt, but the prosecution and defense presented vastly different images of Smith to the jury.

Prosecutors tried to present Smith as a cold-blooded killer. They described her as a woman who drowned her three-year-old son Michael and 14 month-old son Alex to win the affections of a man with whom she had been having an affair. That man, Tom Findlay, took the stand and read a letter he had written to Smith breaking off their relationship. Findlay wrote, "But like I told you before, there are some things about you that aren't suited to me, and yes, I am speaking about your children."

The defense, on the other hand, painted a picture of a deeply disturbed and depressed young woman who had suffered from sexual molestation at the hands of her stepfather.

After five days of testimony, and with Smith's confession virtually assuring a guilty verdict, the jury received the case. It took the nine man, three woman panel only two and a half hours to reach a verdict: guilty on two counts of murder.

Next came the sentencing phase of the trial, with the jury to decide whether Smith deserved the death penalty for her crime. As testimony began again, prosecutors called the boys' father, David Smith, to the stand. He had stood by his estranged wife for nine days in October 1994, pleading for the release of his two sons after she told the world they had been kidnapped.

But in emotional testimony, Smith called for his former wife to be put to death for her crimes. He tearfully told the jury all his hopes, dreams and everything he had planned on for the rest of his life had ended that day.

Prosecutors showed the jury a re-enactment of Susan Smith's Mazda sinking into John D. Long lake. A camera was mounted on the back seat so jurors could get a picture of what the boys saw for the last six minutes of their lives as the car went down in the water.

When the defense began its case in the sentencing phase of the trial, it again focused on Susan Smith's troubled past. Jurors heard of the divorce of her parents when she was six and her father's suicide a month later, as well as Smith's own suicide attempts and sexual molestation by her stepfather, Beverly Russell, that later turned into an affair.

Russell himself took the stand, saying he deserved some of the blame in the case. He read from a letter he sent to Smith in prison, saying "you don't have all the guilt in this tragedy," adding that he let her down as a father.

When jurors were given the case, they again took little time to reach a verdict. Susan Smith was sentenced to life in prison. Under South Carolina law, Smith will be eligible for parole in 30 years, although the notorious nature of her crime makes it unlikely she will ever be released.

Following the jury's decision, David Smith, expressed his disappointment with the sentence. Forgiving, Smith said, is "something I guess I'll have to deal with further down the road." Susan Smith's attorney, David Bruck, summed up the case as bad for all, calling it "an awful human tragedy."


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