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 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 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-monthold Alex strapped in their car seats, into the lake.
“Hold your head up! You’re a baby murderer!” a woman shouted as Smith was escorted into the courthouse, a coat hiding her face.
Now that 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, 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 Smith guilty but mentally ill, they 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 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.
In 1988, when she was a teenager, her stepfather, Beverly Russell, admitted sexually assaulting her. She and her mother, Linda, did not press criminal charges.
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 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.