Smith trial: 1 defendant, 2 portraits


UNION, S.C. -- Is Susan Smith a selfish, conniving woman or a loving mother who snapped -- the product of a confused, fearful and abusive upbringing?

In her trial's first day, cut short by a bomb threat, the prosecution and defense advanced two conflicting portrayals of the woman who has confessed to drowning her two young sons last October after claiming they had been abducted by a stranger.

"This is a case of selfishness. This is a case of I, I, I, me, me, me," assistant prosecutor Keith Giese told the jury, arguing that Ms. Smith wanted to eliminate her children because they were an obstacle to her relationship with Tom Findlay, the son of a wealthy factory owner.

But defense attorney Judy Clarke painted a different picture, a picture of a woman who loved her children but was in despair because of her father's suicide, sexual abuse by her stepfather and a failing life.

"They were the light of her life. They were the center of her life. They were the sunshine of her life. They were everything to Susan Smith," Ms. Clarke said of the two little boys. "Everyone has a breaking point. And she broke."

As the prosecution and defense laid out their cases, Ms. Smith moved her legs almost perpetually under the defense table. When the indictment was read, Ms. Smith, who was dressed in black and wore no makeup, broke into tears.

Members of her family sat behind her. On the prosecution side of the courtroom sat David Smith, father of the two dead boys, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months. The prosecutor, Tommy Pope, shook hands with David Smith before the trial began.

The trial moved quickly. Each opening statement took only 15 minutes.

Smith's defense team, led by prominent death-penalty attorney David Bruck, has not entered a plea on her behalf.

In her opening statement, Ms. Clarke (Mr. Bruck's assistant) acknowledged that the 24-year-old secretary killed the two children. The defense is not aimed at proving Ms. Smith's innocence, merely at saving her from a death sentence.

Arguing that Ms. Smith was suicidal the night she rolled her Mazda Protege into a lake with her children strapped into their car seats, Ms. Clarke said, "In Susan's own suicidal confusion, she believed the children should go with her. The problem is that the body wills to live, and Susan jumped out of that car. It's a lot easier to roll the car down the ramp than to stay in it."

But Mr. Giese told the jury of nine men and three women that "Ms. Smith was in love with a man named Tom Findlay. They had a relationship. . . . And the stumbling block to Ms. Smith getting Tom Findlay was the children." Mr. Findlay had written Ms. Smith a letter breaking off their relationship.

"Tom Findlay was not ready to have a family, period, much less somebody else's children," Mr. Giese said.

The prosecution's first witness was Shirley McCloud, the woman whose house Ms. Smith went to the night of Oct. 25, 1994, claiming that her car, with her children in it, had been taken by a black man. Ms. McCloud said Ms. Smith was "sobbing, wailing, hysterical and physically had to be helped in" to the house after she arrived at about 9 p.m.

Sheriff Howard Wells then described the nationwide search for the two boys and the police investigation of both the alleged abduction and the family. Mr. Wells said he immediately conjectured that some things didn't seem right about Ms. Smith's story. "There were things that attracted our attention," he said.

Mr. Wells said that when he asked Ms. Smith whether she had been sexually assaulted or touched by the abductor, Ms. Smith said, "No" and smiled. "The fact that she smiled when I asked if there was anything sexual was unusual," Mr. Wells said.

In a brief hearing outside the jury's presence, Judge William Howard set a $25,000 personal recognizance bond for Gail Beam, the juror he dismissed Monday and held in criminal contempt for not disclosing a federal wire fraud conviction for which she awaits sentencing.

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