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Sincerely, Susan: S.C. mother convicted of murder 20 years ago defends herself

Corresponding with murderer Susan Smith

Susan Smith writes back to The State newspaper's Harrison Cahill. Cahill tells readers how he came to correspond with one of South Carolina's most notorious murderers.
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Susan Smith writes back to The State newspaper's Harrison Cahill. Cahill tells readers how he came to correspond with one of South Carolina's most notorious murderers.

Susan Smith, the Union, S.C., mother sentenced to life in prison after confessing to the murder of her two young boys 20 years ago, said she never planned to kill her children.

Smith reiterated in a letter she wrote to The State that she loved her boys. She said the deaths were unplanned, that she was distraught. She only lied about the boys being kidnapped because “I didn’t know how to tell the people who loved Michael and Alex that they would never see them again.”

So she said she planned to kill herself. “I had planned to kill myself first and leave a note behind telling what had happened,” Smith said in a letter to The State newspaper. “I didn’t believe I could face my family when the truth was revealed.”

“Mr. Cahill, I am not the monster society thinks I am. I am far from it,” she wrote to reporter Harrison Cahill.

Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of Smith’s conviction, for which she received a life sentence in the deaths of 14-month-old Alex Smith and 3-year-old Michael Smith.

In August 2014, The State submitted a letter to Smith asking if she would share her experiences of her trial and investigation for a 20th-anniversary article regarding the untold stories of the Susan Smith case, which was published in the newspaper in October.

Smith said she was unable to respond in time to tell her side because the letter “was sent to the SCDC Correspondence Review Committee and was not approved until Nov. 19, 2014.”

“I imagine that was done on purpose,” Smith said. “I wanted to let you know that I would have most likely responded to your letter because I have yet been able to speak on my behalf. It has been hard to listen to lie after lie and not be able to defend myself.”

But now, 43-year-old Smith has shared some of her thoughts regarding the night she killed her children.

Something went very wrong that night. I was not myself. I was a good mother and I loved my boys [sic].

Susan Smith said in a letter submitted to The State newspaper

On Oct. 25, 1994, Smith told law enforcement she was stopped at a red light at an intersection on Main Street in the town of Union, when a black man forced her out of the car at gunpoint and drove off with her two small sons in the back.

“Something went very wrong that night. I was not myself,” Smith said. “I was a good mother and I loved my boys [sic]. ... There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.”

Nine days after reporting to police that her sons were missing, Smith confessed to watching her 1990 Mazda Protege roll into John D. Long Lake with 14-month-old Alex and 3-year-old Michael strapped into the backseat. “The only reason I lied is because I didn’t know how to tell the people who loved Michael and Alex that they would never see them again,” Smith said.

The nation had been riveted by Smith’s story. Many were shocked by her confession. And her lie about a black man hijacking her car caused ripples of racial anger for decades.

On July 22, 1995, then-16th Circuit Solicitor Tommy Pope failed to convince a jury that Smith should receive the death penalty for killing her two children. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.

Initial reports suggested that Smith’s motivation for killing her children came on the heels of a letter she received breaking off an affair she was involved in with Tom Findley, son of the owner of Cosno Products, where Smith worked as a secretary and with whom she was having an affair. But Smith said that is a lie.

“The thing that hurts me the most is that people think I hurt my children in order to be with a man,” Smith said. “That is so far from the truth.”

There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.

Susan Smith said in a letter submitted to The State newspaper

Smith signed the letter to The State, “Sincerely, Susan.”

The State wrote a follow-up letter to Smith in June after receiving her response in January. However, she has not responded.

SUSAN SMITH: HOW THE CRIME UNFOLDED

Twenty years ago, the nation was riveted by the drama in the Susan Smith case, which played out from October 1994 to July 1995. Here is a timeline of those events:

Oct. 17, 1994: Tom Findley, son of the owner of the Cosno textile mill where Susan Smith was a secretary, writes a letter to Smith breaking off their affair. Findley said in the letter he didn’t want children.

Oct. 25, 1994: Smith straps 14-month-old Alex and 3-year-old Michael into her burgundy 1990 Mazda Protégé and uses the access ramp to John D. Long Lake to push the car into the water.

Oct. 25, 1994: Smith reports to local police that a black man carjacked her at gunpoint with her two small children in the back of her car.

Oct. 27, 1994: Smith was to come to the Union County Sheriff’s Office, in the county courthouse, to be interviewed by an FBI polygraph operator.

Nov. 2, 1994: Smith and her estranged husband, David, appear on national television, pleading for the safe return of their children.

Nov. 3, 1994: Smith confesses to police investigators at a local church to drowning Alex and Michael after she strapped them into the back seat of her car and pushed it into the lake.

Nov. 3, 1994: Department of Natural Resources divers recover Smith’s car from the lake, with the bodies of Michael and Alex inside.

Nov. 3, 1994: Union County Sheriff Howard Wells holds a press conference informing the nation that Smith was charged with two counts of murder in the drowning deaths of her children.

Nov. 6, 1994: Hundreds of mourners turn out for Michael and Alex’s wake and funeral. Their bodies were placed in the same casket.

Dec. 12, 1994: Smith is indicted on two charges of murder.

Jan. 16, 1995: 16th Circuit Solicitor Tommy Pope announces his decision to pursue the death penalty.

July 10, 1994: Jury selection begins. Nine men and three women are chosen, four black, eight white, all from Union County.

July 22, 1995: The jury finds Smith guilty on two counts of murder.

July 24, 1995: The penalty phase of the trial begins.

July 26, 1995: David Smith testifies against his ex-wife in heart-wrenching testimony.

July 28, 1995: Smith is sentenced to life in prison and is taken to prison.

Sept. 11, 2000: Smith is found guilty of sexual misconduct for engaging in sexual acts with two prison guards while incarcerated.

SOURCE: Disciplinary records from the S.C. Department of Corrections

Where are they now?

Two lawyers have gone on to make headlines after the Susan Smith trial.

Judy Clarke: With attorney David Bruck, Clarke helped convince jurors that Smith was a fragile victim of sexual abuse who should not be executed. Clarke went on to spare the Unabomber from the death penalty, too, though Ted Kaczynski never forgave her for trying to make him look insane. More recently, she did not manage to save Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from the death penalty. She also represented Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and Jared Loughner, who tried to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others.

Tommy Pope: Pope was the 16th Circuit solicitor and, as Smith's prosecutor, sought the death penalty. He is now an S.C. House representative who plans to run for governor.

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