July 11, 1995 in Nation/World

Expert Says Smith Suicidal Testimony May Affect Competency Ruling

Charlotte Observer
 

Susan Smith’s murder trial opened Monday with a psychiatrist’s revelation: She is so suicidal she wouldn’t be able to testify on her own behalf, except to say she wishes she were dead.

“I am concerned because she is so helpless,” testified Dr. Donald Morgan, a psychiatry professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

“She feels she doesn’t care. She would like to die. If she could figure out a way to die, she would, in fact, do that.”

Judge William Howard will decide today whether Susan Smith is competent to stand trial for killing her two young sons on Oct. 25.

If she is declared competent, the trial will begin. If she is not, she will be sent to a mental institution until she is declared competent or it is determined she will never be competent.

On Monday, what should have been a routine hearing turned into a bombshell because of Morgan’s testimony that she has a major mental illness and is severely suicidal.

“This is a helluva way to start a death penalty case,” said former Columbia, S.C., area solicitor Dick Harpootlian, who is commenting on the trial for CNN. “It’s troubling for the prosecution. The first witness for the state says she is mentally ill, was mentally ill and may not be able to stand trial. How can you assist in your own defense if you can’t testify?”

Prosecutor Tommy Pope called Morgan to the stand about 4 p.m., after a tedious morning of jury selection. Questioning potential jurors will continue today if the judge declares Smith competent.

In what has become South Carolina’s most notorious case, Smith is charged with letting her car roll into John D. Long Lake with Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, strapped in their car seats inside.

For nine days afterward, her made-up story of a black carjacker who had stolen her car and kidnapped her children transfixed people across the nation. On Monday, Smith sat primly in a white blouse and navy blue jacket and skirt as Pope gave the judge a copy of her April 24 mental evaluation. The judge, who until then had ruled the evaluation was private, declared it public.

From Pope’s point of view, the most important part of the document is three yes answers: Yes, she is competent to stand trial. Yes, she is criminally responsible for her actions. And yes, she has the capacity to know if she is breaking the law.

“She is still competent in his expert opinion,” Pope told the judge after Morgan stepped down from the stand at about 5:05 p.m.

But defense lawyer David Bruck told the judge: “I think it’s a real close call. … The testimony is that she has a major mental illness and this is the core of her suicidality.”


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