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York County woman: 'I think about pulling the trigger all the time'

By Andrew Dys
adys@heraldonline.com
Janice Clark Smith
JEFF SOCHKO - SPECIAL TO THE HERALD
Janice Clark Smith meets with Public Defender Harry Dest 10 years after she shot and killed her father after a lifetime of abuse. Her story garnered headlines nationwide.

CATAWBA, S.C. - Janice Clark Smith is a 59-year-old mother and grandmother who spends her days helping her daughter make sure the grandchildren are cared for and have lives filled with love and hugs and kisses.

Kisses that mean love without condition. Love that matters. Real hugs that shield children from the evil in the world – not hugs that squeeze and grope and get unspeakably worse as kids turn into teens and adults.

She loves her family, but she can’t get credit or get an apartment in her name or get past the door at most jobs.

Smith, from tiny Catawba in the far southeastern corner of rural York County, is a convicted killer.

“I killed my daddy, shot him dead,” she said. “I think about pulling the trigger all the time.”

From the start, she freely admitted pulling the trigger again and again after enduring a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her drunken, raging father. George Manley Clark terrorized not only Smith but the rest of his family for almost 50 years.

Smith has spent time in prison. She has been on TV in front of tens of millions of people with Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. All because she shot and killed the man who had abused her and pretty much everybody else he could pin down with violence.

“I didn’t want to become famous for killing my father, but I did,” Smith said. “I think about him dyin’, and prison, every day of my life. This week is the worst. This is the week I shot him. I have nightmares about prison.”

‘If I saw him, I would kill him’

A decade ago – Dec 11, 2003, a Wednesday – Janice Smith, then 49, discovered that her father had been withholding her mother’s cancer medications and pain pills. He was holding Martha Clark hostage, terrorizing her as he had for almost his whole life.

George Clark, then 73, had sexually, physically or emotionally abused Smith and her brothers and sisters all their lives. He abused his grandchildren and extended family. He served one stretch on probation in the 1980s for molesting a female family member – but she was the only one who had ever reported him to the police.

Back then, in some families and communities, it just wasn’t done – to tell on a father, a molester and monster who beat up his own family and worse. This man executed pets with a shotgun in front of terrified kids, beat them with anything he could get his hands on. He sheared the hair of his 6-year-old, cancer-ridden daughter with a buck knife as she screamed for mercy.

But this last abuse of her mother in late 2003 was just too much for Smith to bear.

“I had gone there to kill him two, three weeks earlier,” Smith recalled. “I was scared (that) if I saw him I would kill him. He wasn’t home. But that night 10 years ago, around 9 at night, he was there.”

Smith had been sipping wine herself that day. She grabbed the gun she kept, not even checking to see if it was loaded. She told her husband she was going to the store for cigarettes, but instead she headed across town to where the monster lived.

“I drove to the house and walked in,” Smith said. “First thing he asks is, ‘Did you bring me something to drink, damn girl?’ I watered the drink down and gave him a drink, kind of a peace offering.

“I put the gun behind Momma’s radio.”

Smith stood there as her father roared and threatened to beat her as he had beaten her about the head and shoulders just days before. She cried and begged him to leave her mother alone. Martha Clark was dying of cancer. She needed her medications to have some semblance of peace.

The family had sneaked Martha Clark out of the house earlier that day to get her away from her tormentor, who was sitting in the chair in front of Smith.

‘I watched him die’

George Clark asked Smith asked where her momma was.

“I told him she was with my sister’s daughter,” Smith said. “He said, ‘Oh, she’s gone with them sonsabitches.’ ”

For whatever reason, at that moment, a lifetime of abuse rose in Smith’s throat. A lifetime of watching her family be abused welled up – the girls, the boys, the mother.

Smith grabbed the gun and faced her father. Without saying a word, she pulled the trigger.

The gun misfired.

The old man roared, “If you are gonna kill me, then do it!”

Smith pulled the trigger again. And again.

Finally, on the fourth pull, the gun went off.

“It was like I was in a movie,” Smith remembered.

Manley was shot square in the gut.

“Well, you done it now!” he screamed.

Smith shot him again. And again.

“And I stood there and watched him die,” she said.

The old monster was gone.

“But I was a cold-blooded murderer,” Smith said.

After watching her father die, Smith hid the gloves she wore, threw the gun as far as she could into some nearby woods, and went home.

She could not sleep.

“I just knew that Daddy couldn’t hurt anybody anymore,” Smith said. “I didn’t care what happened to me. He was dead is all that mattered. I just wanted peace for Momma and everybody.”

The next morning, she told her husband to call 911.

“I killed Daddy last night,” she told Jerry Smith. “Tell the police come and get me.”

Smith told the police everything in detail in a written statement. She was charged with murder and was looking at 30 years to life in prison.

“It was a terrible time,” said Glenda Evans, Smith’s sister. “The family was in chaos because Daddy was so horrible, and he was so terrible to all of us – and now Janice was in jail.”

Because she had no money, Smith qualified for a free lawyer.

The day after her arrest, she was taken to a room in the York County jail where prisoners talk through a glass partition. She watched as a man strode in, sporting jet-black, slicked-back hair and a suit of the finest fabric. The guy was movie-star handsome, but he did not smile like a movie star.

“The man told me his name was Harry Dest, and he was my lawyer,” Smith said, “and it turns out that he would save my life.”

‘I had to pay for it’

Dest was then, and still is, the chief public defender for the 16th Judicial Circuit, which includes York County. His clients are accused of the worst crimes in the world, and he still fights for them all because that is his job, his duty. He has defended killers and rapists of children. He has defended molesters just like George Manley Clark.

To that point in his career, Dest pretty much thought he had heard it all. He asked Smith to tell him what happened and why.

He was floored.

“She was shaking, she was fragile, crying and upset,” Dest remembered. “She told me about the abuse. She told me about this man, her father. I knew right then there was so much more to this case than a premeditated killing. The level of brutality, the sexual and physical assaults, the emotional onslaughts. It was the worst I had ever heard. It still is the worst I have ever seen or heard about.

“It went back to Janice’s childhood. Abuse at the hands of her father happened her whole life – and it happened to everyone in her family.”

Four days later, Dest asked a judge to release Smith on bond. Dest did not maintain then or since that Smith did not kill her father. He told the judge about some of the abuse and that Smith was not a flight risk or a threat to anyone else. He said eventually all of the details of the abuse would come out in court. Smith was released on $25,000 bond.

Over the next eight months, Dest and his investigators would locate more than 40 people who had been abused by George Manley Clark. He approached prosecutors with what he found, and they agreed that the abuse was horrific – but Smith had killed her father in cold blood on a day when she was not abused.

Factually, it was murder, Dest and prosecutors knew from the very first day.

Prosecutors Willy Thompson and Phil Smith from the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office offered a deal – plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, in exchange for a cap of 15 years in prison.

In August 2004, Smith went back to court to plead guilty.

“I knew I was going to prison, but I didn’t want it to be for the rest of my life,” Smith said. “I was terrified.”

During that hearing, Dest presented the judge with testimony and written statements from more than 40 people who talked about the awful things Clark had done to his children, his grandchildren, his wife, more. All those people filled one side of the courtroom. Some of Smith’s siblings spoke of how they, too, had planned and wished to kill their father themselves.

On the other side of the courtroom sat prosecutor Phil Smith – and nobody else.

“I looked back that day and saw, it registered, that there was not a person in the whole wide world to say a good thing about Daddy, because there was nothing good anybody could have ever said about him,” Smith said. “He hurt and tried to ruin everything and everybody he ever touched.”

Dest argued that because of the documented abuse, Smith should qualify under a law that, at the time, allowed children who killed their abusers to be eligible for parole after having served a quarter of their sentence.

“If Janice got the high end of the scale,” Dest said, “with her fragile state, I didn’t know if she would survive it.”

Smith told the judge that, despite a lifetime of abuse, killing her father was wrong.

“I admitted it was wrong because it was wrong,” she said. “I shouldn’t have killed him, but I did – and I had to pay for it.”

Circuit Court Judge Howard King, a visiting judge from Sumter, was so shocked by the testimony of abuse that he needed to take the night to think about how to sentence Smith. Dest had asked for probation, but he told Smith to expect some prison time.

The next day Judge King sentenced Smith to seven years in prison, saying that she could not take the law into her own hands despite the overwhelming evidence of abuse.

A seven-year sentence meant Smith would be eligible for parole in about 16 months.

But for Janice Clark Smith, the next 16 months would seem to last 16 years.

Almost from her first day at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, the women’s prison in Columbia, Smith would call her sisters and mother –and the terror in her voice would jump through the phone.

“She would beg us to get her out of there,” said her sister, Sherri Thornburg, “but there was nothing anybody could do.”

‘The only lawyer I ever wanted’

The world soon would learn who Janice Clark Smith was, and it would be horrified at the abuse she endured. The Herald’s coverage of the case brought national attention. The producers of “Larry King Live” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” begged Dest and Smith’s mother and sisters to appear on their shows.

Dest had to weigh the merits of speaking about the case with Smith’s upcoming parole hearing in early 2006. Smith gave him, her mother and sisters her blessing to share their story with the world.

“If it would help somebody else not have to go through what I went through, I had to let them do it,” Smith said.

After appearing on those two shows – both of which draw international viewers – letters from Smith’s newfound supporters began to pour into the prison. Strangers started a website to spread her story even further.

“But you don’t want to be a celebrity in prison,” Smith said. “You don’t want a high profile. The other inmates, the guards, they weren’t happy with it.”

There were inmates who threatened to hurt her or worse.

“They even were considering putting me in protective custody, because it was known that people were out to get me in prison,” Smith said. “People would make stabbing motions. They would tell me to watch my back because somebody was gonna stab me in it.

“Prison, it is horrible, and after everybody knew about my story, it was worse.”

Some of the highest-profile lawyers in America contacted Smith and her family, offering to represent her in her parole hearing at no charge.

She declined all offers.

“Harry Dest was the only lawyer I ever wanted,” Smith said. “Harry fought for me. Harry told the truth, and I told the truth. Harry told me from that first day that if I told the truth about my father and what he did to me and everybody else, and told the truth about what I did to him, that we had to believe in the justice system after that.”

In January 2006, Dest and Smith were set to appear before the South Carolina Board of Paroles and Pardons. In the waiting room at the prison – from where Dest, Smith and her family would attend the hearing via videoconference – other inmates yelled about being denied parole time and time again. Few inmates are released at their first parole hearing.

Still, Dest walked the parole board through the abuse that had led to Smith’s killing her father. He brought up how Smith’s admission of guilt, and accepting punishment in prison, showed she was remorseful. Smith told the parole board that despite her father’s horrors, she had no right to kill him.

Just minutes later, Janice Clark Smith found out she had been granted parole. A week later, she walked out of prison a free woman.

“I was on parole, but I was out of jail,” she said. “Harry Dest had saved my life, for the second time.”

‘I didn’t know if I could make it’

Smith came home to Catawba on Jan. 12, 2006. She hugged her children and grandchildren, her mother and her husband.

She and her family, and Dest the public defender, would appear on “Larry King Live.” This time, Smith herself would talk of the abuse and of killing her own father.

Dest, who had fought so long and so hard for Smith, became for a time the most famous public defender in America.

Smith was a celebrity for killing about the worst father on earth.

But back home in Catawba, after the cameras were turned off, Smith’s life was not one of celebrity. Over the next three years, she would have to deal with the death of her mother and husband, both from cancer. She would meet regularly with her parole officer. She would work at a restaurant and a convenience store. She would be subject to drug and alcohol tests, treated like any other ex-con.

“Sometimes I didn’t know if I could make it,” Smith said. “I was humiliated ... (but) Harry stayed by me the whole time. My family did, too.”

Finally, in August 2010, Smith finished parole.

After walking out of the parole office for the last time, she said: “I am free, finally, of my father.”

But now, three years after parole ended, Smith finds herself not totally free of the monster father she shot three times 10 years ago. Every time she fills out an application for a job or for a place to live – or for pretty much anything else in her life – Smith has to mark the slot “yes” that asks if she has ever been convicted of a felony.

She lost her house to bank foreclosure, and only with family help was not homeless and living in the streets.

Still, Smith refuses to hide what she did or to lie about it.

“Manslaughter, it is on my record,” she said. “I did it. I killed my daddy, and it happened, and I hope that someday I can live the rest of my life with my family without it being all around me all the time and the only thing I am about.”

This past week, exactly 10 years after killing her father, Smith and her two sisters met with Dest at his office at the Moss Justice Center in York. The sisters talked about the case and the abuse at the hands of their father that scarred all their lives. All thanked Dest and the people who work for him, again.

Dest reminded Smith that soon after her plea deal in 2004, the Legislature changed the law that allowed her to make parole as early as she did. South Carolina now allows only spouses, common-law spouses and people who have children together to try to prove abuse and get early release if one partner kills the other.

“There are victims of abuse out there, children, who have been and will be excluded from a chance to explain how the abuse was a cause that led to the violent crime,” Dest said. “If this happened today, Janice would have been looking at far longer in prison.”

The group walked upstairs from Dest’s office to the exact spot in the courtroom where Smith had admitted to killing her father. She and Dest stood exactly where they had stood, so many years before, when dozens of people told the judge about the crimes and horrors of George Manley Clark.

Smith hugged Dest.

“Thanks Harry, for saving my life so many times,” she said. “I would have been in prison forever if it wasn’t for you. I might have died in there by now.”

Dest headed back to his office, where a crying mother needed to talk with him about a son in jail. That case and hundreds more were waiting for him in his 23rd year as York County’s lawyer for the poor.

Then Janice Clark Smith walked out of the courtroom, down the stairs and out the courthouse door.

Back to a life of children and grandchildren. Back to a life of admitting when asked that she is that lady whose family had been abused by the evil father. Back to a life in which she always will be the daughter who had had enough abuse, poured her abusive monster of a father a drink, grabbed a gun and shot him three times before watching him die.

Back to life.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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