It’s been almost 22 years since Susan Smith was convicted of killing her two little boys, a tragic event that sparked worldwide attention, rage and confusion. While living in a maximum security prison in South Carolina, Smith, a survivor of sexual assault, continues to assert that it was past trauma that led her to murder her own children.
The Murders of Michael Daniel Smith and Alexander Tyler Smith
In 1994, Smith, only 23 at the time, was a single mother, living alone with her two sons, Michael, 3, and Alexander (Alex), 13 months, in the small South Carolina town of Union. She’d been separated from her husband Michael for several months, but they were successfully co-parenting their children, or so it seemed.
Smith had been dating the son of a prominent business owner, but at some point, he decided he wanted to end the relationship. He gave her a hand-written letter, in which he explained that not only did he want to stop seeing her, but he also couldn’t see himself in a long-term relationship with anyone with children, as he had no plans to have children or play step-father to anyone else’s kids.
On October 15, 1994, Smith frantically phoned police and said she had been carjacked by a black man while stopped at a red light in Union City on Highway 49. He had forced her out of the car and took off in the vehicle, taking her two children who were seated in the back along with him. A massive manhunt ensued, and Smith tearfully pleaded for their return in numerous TV news appearances, crying out for her children and begging the alleged abductor to bring them home. All the while, authorities became increasingly skeptical of her story.
Although she acted like a worried mother in front of cameras, Smith’s body language and mannerisms didn’t sit well with detectives. It didn’t help that she kept changing her story about the incident and what led up to the alleged carjacking and kidnapping.
The biggest red flag was Smith’s contention that the alleged carjacking occurred at a red light behind the Monarch Mill Textile Plant, and that there were no other cars at the intersection. According to detectives, there was no way Smith would have been stuck at a red light on the particular intersection she named, as the red light was only activated if there was another car coming down the cross street.
“We were able to show, at one point, that her story could not have happened at that intersection because she said nobody was there,” said Robert Stewart, former chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). “In order for the light to be red, a car would have had to activate the pressure pad on the intersecting street to make her light red.”
Union County Sheriff Howard Wells was also suspicious of Smith’s story, so much so that he admitted he fibbed a bit in order to get a confession. Nine days after her sons went missing, Wells informed Smith that Union County had surveillance cameras in the area where the alleged carjacking occurred, and that they knew the incident “couldn’t have happened as she said.”
Wells wasn’t sure if the tactic would work, but once he told her he’d take the information to the media, Smith broke down and confessed to leaving her children strapped inside the back seat of her red Mazda Protégé, which she then let roll down a boat ramp and into Union City’s John D. Long Lake. Shortly after confessing, Smith gave both a written and oral statement to the police, detailing how she killed her children. The only reasoning she gave for the murders was that her children “were not alright.”
Defense attorneys immediately painted a picture of a distraught, mentally ill and suicidal mother who was unlawfully coerced into giving a confession. Court records indicate that Smith’s father killed himself when she was just six-years-old. Her lawyers tried to use his suicide as a defense tactic, explaining that it led Smith into long-term depression, mental instability, and her own suicidal thoughts.
During her trial, Smith’s stepfather, Beverly Russell, took the stand and testified that he molested Smith when she was a teen and had “consensual” sex with her as an adult. He admitted that he shared some of the guilt of what happened to Michael and Alex. He later testified that he would have never touched Smith had he known what she was capable of.
“Had I known what the result of my sin would be, I would have mustered the strength to behave according to my responsibility,” Russell said.
Regardless, the heinous and inhumane manner in which Smith murdered her young boys, coupled with evidence that indicated she was aware that her actions were wrong, convinced a South Carolina jury to convict her of two counts of murder. Smith was sentenced to serve 30 years to life in prison.
Although prosecutors contended Smith killed her children because of the the “Dear John”-type breakup letter than her ex-boyfriend gave her, she has long maintained that the crime had nothing to do with a man.
“The thing that hurts me the most is that people think that I hurt my children in order to be with a man,” Smith wrote in a letter to The State newspaper in 2015. “That is so far from the truth. … I was a good mother and I loved my boys. … Something went very wrong that night. I was not myself. There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.”
Since being in the prison, Smith has racked up numerous infractions, including violations for having sex with at least two officers at the Women’s Correctional Center in Columbia. One of the men, former prison guard captain Alford J. Rowe Jr., pleaded guilty in 2001 to having sexual relations with Smith during the year prior, while he worked as a night shift supervisor at the prison. Months earlier, former prison guard Houston Cagle also pleaded guilty to having sex with Smith. Both men were fired and banned from ever working within the South Carolina prison system.
Smith was transferred to the Leath Correctional Facility after authorities discovered the infractions, but she still couldn’t seem stay out of trouble. According to former South Carolina Prisons Director Jon Ozmint, who saw Smith multiple times from 2001-2011, the infamous child killer was given a myriad of disciplinary actions for violating prison rules. The majority of violations happened after Smith mutilated her own skin on several occasions. Self-inflicted harm is considered a violation in South Carolina prisons.
On two occasions in 2010 and another occasion in 2015, Smith racked up more infractions after she was found with illegal drugs. Each offense resulted in no phone, canteen, and visitation privileges for up to a year. She was also sentenced to 60 days of detention for each violation.
In 2012, Smith was busted for “unauthorized use of an “I/M’s pin credit,” resulting in loss of phone, canteen, and visitation privileges for 240 days.
Ozmint has also claimed that Smith hasn’t reformed in any way since being in prison. He indicated that most people who enter the prison system in South Carolina on murder charges usually accept guilt and move on to become better people. Not so with Smith, at least according to Ozmint.
“Most murderers are one-time, crime-of-passion people, and they end up becoming good people. Susan Smith just hasn’t been able to fit that mold,” said Ozmint, calling her “a strain on the system.” He rejects her alleged efforts to portray herself as a caring woman, even a victim, who was not in her right frame of mind when she killed her children.
“She is truly a narcissist, and she thrives on the media’s attention,” Ozmint said. “Someone like that, I didn’t want to feed that narcissism. Other than passing her on the yard, I wouldn’t give her any extra, undue attention.”
John D. Long Lake Boat Ramp Removal
In 1996, South Carolina Natural Resources Department made the decision to remove the boat ramp at John D. Long Lake, though even today, people continue to visit the area where little Alex and Michael met their fate. The ramp was demolished in 1997, months after numerous victims lost their lives in the lake in a similar fashion as the young boys.
In September of 1996, a family went to the boat ramp in a GMC Suburban in order to visit the makeshift memorials to Michael and Alex. Five people, including one adult and four children, were in the vehicle as it sat on an incline on the ramp, while the children’s mother stood outside to get a better view of the area.
At some point, the vehicle began rolling down the incline. Unable to stop the GMC, driver Tim Phillips held on tightly as it landed in the water. The children’s mother, Angie Phillips, jumped in the lake to help save them, but she drowned in the process. Another adult visiting the memorials jumped in to help, but drowned as well. A total of seven people died. The incident was later ruled an accident.
Will Susan Smith Be Released?
Smith, acting as her own legal representative, unsuccessfully tried to get her conviction overturned on appeal in 2010, claiming her “Amanda Rights” [i.e. her Miranda rights] were violated and she was illegally coerced into a confession without the presence of an attorney.
The appeal also claimed that she suffered from “battered woman’s syndrome,” claiming her ex-husband (and the boys’ father) had abused her; however, the prosecutor who tried her maintained that investigators found David Smith hadn’t committed any wrongdoing. The judge threw out Smith’s appeal after giving her additional time to make more substantive arguments.
While she has not exhausted her available appeal options, she is unlikely to have much success without proper representation and stronger legal grounds for post-conviction relief.
For now, although Smith violated prison rules a number of times, she still remains eligible for parole on November 4, 2024.