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Trial for Woman Who Drowned Sons in Lake Finally Beginning

July 8, 1995 GMT

UNION, S.C. (AP) _ The image of Susan Smith as a victim of abuse will be put to the test when her trial begins Monday.

Since the day he was hired, attorney David Bruck has focused on the mental state of the woman who drowned her two sons last year.

``Only someone who is crazy, who has something wrong with their head, could do this to their own children,″ Bruck said after Ms. Smith was indicted for murder in November.

Now, so she can avoid the death penalty, he must persuade a Union County jury to see her as a repentant, suicidal sex abuse victim, rather than a killer who watched her sons slowly disappear below the surface of John D. Long lake.


The 23-year-old Ms. Smith already has taken her community on an emotional roller coaster.

For nine days, the rural mill town rallied behind her claim that a black carjacker had kidnapped her boys on the night of Oct. 25. Then the town turned against her when she confessed to rolling her car, with 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex strapped in their car seats, into the lake.

``Hold your head up! You’re a baby murderer!,″ one woman shouted as Ms. Smith was escorted into the courthouse, a coat hiding her face.

Now that Ms. Smith’s family secrets are common knowledge, some have softened their opinions.

``Maybe she couldn’t help herself,″ said Linda Williams, who lives near the lake. ``I mean, we’ve heard so much about how she was hurt and abused. There’s no way to tell if she hasn’t always been crazy.″

In her confession, Ms. Smith wrote that she was an ``absolute mental case″ when she drove to the lake that night.

``When I left home on Tuesday, October 25, I was very emotionally distraught,″ she wrote. ``I didn’t want to live anymore. I felt I had to end our lives to protect us all from any grief or harm.″

She never explained why she saved herself while allowing her sons to die.

If jurors find Ms. Smith guilty but mentally ill, they still could sentence her to death. That means she understood what she was doing was wrong but could not conform her action to the law.

A verdict of innocent by reason of insanity, which means she didn’t understand that what she was doing was wrong, would send her to a mental hospital. If later she is declared sane, she could be released.

Court documents chart a secretly troubled life for the young woman voted ``friendliest″ by her classmates at Union High School.

In 1978, when she was 6, her father, firefighter Harry Vaughan, shot himself to death.

During the next 10 years, she tried to kill herself twice by overdosing on aspirin and was hospitalized for depression after her second attempt.

In 1988, when she was a teen-ager, her stepfather, Beverly Russell, admitted sexually assaulting her. She and her mother, Linda, did not press criminal charges.

After all that, some townspeople said they can’t stomach the idea of executing her.

```I keep thinking of my own daughter when I think about her,″ Mrs. Williams said. ``Susan grew up here in town where everybody knows everybody. I just can’t see coldly telling somebody to kill someone I know.″

Others have changed their minds for different reasons. Jeweler Amy Sanders said she was ready to lead a lynch mob for months after Ms. Smith confessed. Now, she’s not so sure death is the best punishment.

``If they kill her, it’s over,″ Mrs. Sanders said. ``If she stays alive, she’ll have to think about what she did for the rest of her life.″

Prosecutor Tommy Pope has stood firm in seeking the death penalty, a move supported by the boys’ father, David Smith, who divorced her on May 5.

Pope said he would keep in the courtroom a picture of the boys that David Smith gave him, with the inscription, ``Don’t give up on Michael and Alex.″

Pope plans to portray Ms. Smith as a manipulative, adulterous woman who used murder to get rid of her children when they got in the way of a relationship with her boss’ son, Tom Findlay.

In her confession, she said her breakup with Findlay left her suicidal, with nowhere to turn.

``I felt I couldn’t be a good mom anymore, but I didn’t want my children to grow up without a mom,″ Ms. Smith wrote. ``I had never felt so lonely and so sad in my entire life.″

What jurors decide Ms. Smith was thinking that night may well be what decides her fate, experts said.

``If she was intent on suicide the night of Oct. 25, why did she get out of the car?″ said Dr. Harold Morgan, a forensic psychologist in Columbia. ``And when she decided not to kill herself, why did she leave the boys in the car?″

The image of Ms. Smith crying and begging on television for the return of her sons also may be difficult to overcome.

``That’s going to be something that will be hard for a jury to look past,″ said Dick Harpootlian, a former prosecutor in Columbia. ``They may say, `She had to know what she did was wrong, because she lied about it.‴