Susan Smith was spared the death penalty Friday for drowning her two little boys, Michael and Alex.
The nine-man, three-woman jury sentenced her to life in prison after a gut-wrenching trial that laid bare her troubled past and exposed some of her town’s darkest secrets.
The jury deliberated just 2-1/2 hours to decide unanimously that Smith should not be put to death. The jury had taken the same amount of time July 22 to convict Smith of murder. But townspeople had predicted months ago that Smith would not receive the death penalty, saying the disclosure that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather, while authorities looked the other way, would be enough to save her life.
The jury foreman handed the verdict to the clerk, who read: “We, the jury, find that Susan Smith should be confined to prison for the rest of her natural life.”
Smith will be eligible for parole in 30 years.
As the jury’s verdict was read Friday, the 23-year-old secretary put her arm around her defense lawyer, David Bruck. Bruck later said Smith felt “relieved for her family.”
Members of her family sighed with relief but said nothing. Afterward, they hugged each other as they left the courtroom.
Minutes later, Beverly Russell, the politically prominent stepfather who had molested Smith as a teenager - and hired Bruck to defend her - gave Bruck a bear hug.
And when Judge William Howard officially imposed Smith’s sentence, she murmured, “Thank you.”
After the verdict, prosecutor Tommy Pope said he was disappointed in the trial’s outcome. But he expressed no regrets about seeking the death penalty against Smith. “At the end of this long road we’ve all been through, I still think it was worth it.”
But Bruck said in his closing argument that Smith’s grief, remorse and memories while serving life behind bars would be torment enough.
“This young woman is in a lake of fire,” Bruck said. “That’s her punishment.”
Bruck said after the verdict that Smith still wants to die. “I think Susan is still suicidal,” he said.
Outside the courtroom, residents expressed relief that their town could now get back to normal.
But one lifelong resident of Union, tractor trailer driver Melvin Jeter, who is black, was unhappy with the verdict on racial grounds.
“There’s no doubt about it, if it had been a black man or a black woman on trial, they would have gotten the (electric) chair - no ifs, ands or buts.”
When her two boys disappeared last October, Smith told police that a black carjacker had taken her car with the boys inside.