Susan Smith

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Susan Smith
Susan Smith (SC convict).png
Smith in 2012
Susan Leigh Vaughan

(1971-09-26) September 26, 1971 (age 51)
Criminal statusIncarcerated
David Smith
(m. 1991; div. 1995)
ChildrenMichael Daniel (1991–1994)
Alexander Tyler (1993–1994)
Parent(s)Linda Sue Harrison and Harry Ray Vaughan
Conviction(s)Murder (2 counts)
Criminal penaltyLife imprisonment with possibility of parole after 30 years
Imprisoned atLeath Correctional Institution

Susan Leigh Smith (née Vaughan; born September 26, 1971) is an American woman who was convicted of murdering her two sons, three-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander, in 1994 by drowning them in a South Carolina lake.[2]

The case gained international attention because of Smith's false claim that a black man had kidnapped her sons during a carjacking.[3] Her defense attorneys, David Bruck and Judy Clarke, called expert witnesses to testify that she had mental health issues that impaired her judgment when she committed the crimes.[4][5]

Smith was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.[2] According to the South Carolina Department of Corrections, she will be eligible for parole on November 4, 2024. She is incarcerated at the Leath Correctional Institution near Greenwood, South Carolina.[6]

Family background[edit]

Smith rarely had a stable home life growing up. Her father took his own life when she was six years old, and Smith herself attempted suicide at age 13. Her mother then married Beverly Russell, a member of the local chapter of the Christian Coalition, who later was revealed to have molested Smith when she was a teenager. One newspaper claimed that sexual relations between them had continued until six months before the murders.[7]

After graduating from high school in 1989, Smith made a second attempt to kill herself after a married man she was in a relationship with ended their affair.[8] She married David Smith, and they had two sons. The relationship was rocky due to mutual allegations of infidelity, and they separated several times.[9]


On October 25, 1994, Smith reported to police that her vehicle had been carjacked by a black man who drove away with her sons still inside. For nine days, she made dramatic pleas on national television for their safe return. However, following an intensive investigation and a nationwide search for them, she confessed on November 3, 1994, to letting her car roll into nearby John D. Long Lake,[10] drowning them inside.[11] Her motivation was reportedly to facilitate a relationship with a local wealthy man named Tom Findlay. Prior to the murders he sent Smith a letter ending their relationship and expressing that he did not want children.[12] She said that there was no motive nor did she plan the murders, stating that she was not in a right state of mind.[9]

Later investigation revealed that detectives doubted Smith's story from the start and believed that she murdered her sons. By the second day of the investigation, the police suspected that she knew their location and hoped that they were still alive. Investigators started to search the nearby lakes and ponds, including John D. Long Lake, where their bodies were eventually found. Initial water searches did not locate the car because the police believed it would be within 30 feet of the shore, and did not search farther; it turned out to be 122 feet from the shore. After the boys had been missing for two days, the Smiths were subjected to a polygraph test. The biggest breakthrough of the case was her description of the carjacking location. She had claimed that a traffic light had turned red causing her to stop at an otherwise empty intersection. However, it was determined that the light would not have turned red for her unless a vehicle was present on the intersecting road. This conflicted with her statement that she did not see any other cars there when the carjacking took place.[13]


In 1995, David Bruck and Judy Clarke served as co-counsel for Smith.[14] In their opening statement, Clarke argued Smith was deeply troubled and experienced severe depression.[14] Clarke told the jury: "This is not a case about evil. This is a case about despair and sadness."[15] The defense's theory of the case was that Smith drove to the edge of the lake to kill herself and her two sons, but her body willed itself out of the car.[14] The prosecution, on the other hand, believed she murdered her sons in order to start a new life with a former lover.[14] It took the jury only two and a half hours to convict her of murdering them. During the penalty phase, Tommy Pope, the lead prosecutor in the Smith case, argued passionately in favor of sentencing Smith to death. The jury ultimately voted against imposing the death penalty.[15] Smith's defense psychiatrist diagnosed her with dependent personality disorder and major depression.[16]


Smith was incarcerated in the Administrative Segregation Unit in the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina.[17]

During Smith's incarceration at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, two correctional officers, Lieutenant Houston Cagle and Captain Alfred R. Rowe Jr., were charged after having sex with her.[18] Consequently, she was moved to the Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood.[19]

She will be eligible for parole in November 2024.[20]

In popular culture[edit]

The season three premiere of Arrested Development ("The Cabin Show") features a flashback scene in which Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter), having recently gone off her postpartum medication, is watching a news story about Smith, to which she replies "Good for her!"— much to the concern of her son Buster (Tony Hale). The end of the episode features Lucille walking away from her car, with Buster asleep in the back seat as it rolls into a nearby body of water.[21]

A Season 6 episode of Law and Order was based on her case.[citation needed]

Blind Melon's song "Car Seat (God's Presents)", from their 1995 Soup album, was inspired by the Susan Smith murders,[22] as was the Tom House song "I'm in love with Susan Smith". The song "When This is Over", on Hayden's 1995 album Everything I Long For is written from the point of view of one of Susan Smith's sons as the car sinks into the lake.[23] The first song released by Red Star Belgrade, "Union, S.C.", is written from the perspective of Smith.[24]

Lie to Me Season 1, Episode 3 "A Perfect Score" featured a clip of one of her news appearances was used as an example of microexpressions when mothers who commit filicide lie about what happened.

Smith appears briefly in archival footage in the 2002 film Bowling for Columbine in a scene about "dangerous black guys".[25][26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rekers, George (1996). Susan Smith: Victim Or Murderer. Glenbridge Publishing Ltd. pp. 12, 16. ISBN 0-944435-38-6.
  2. ^ a b Spitz, Werner U. (2005). "Investigation of Bodies in Water". In Spitz, Daniel J. (ed.). Spitz and Fisher's Medicolegal Investigation of Death. Guideline for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigations (4th ed.). Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publishing Ltd. pp. 846–881. ISBN 978-0398075446.
  3. ^ "Susan Smith, Mother Who Killed Kids". NBC News. July 23, 2015. Retrieved June 9, 2016.
  4. ^ Grant, Lorrie (February 27, 1995). "Lawyers to Reveal Defense for Susan Smith: Could Pleas Insanity or Mental Illness for Mother of Drowned Boys". Buffalo News. Retrieved February 19, 2022.
  5. ^ Bragg, Rick (July 22, 1995). "Psychiatrist for Susan Smith's Defense Tells of a Woman Desperate to Be Liked". New York Times.
  6. ^ "Inmate Details Susan Smith." (Page Archive, Image Archive) South Carolina Department of Corrections. Retrieved on 2007-11-22.
  7. ^ Gleick, Elizabeth (June 24, 2001). "Sex, betrayal, and murder". Time. New York City: Time, Inc. Retrieved September 13, 2018.
  8. ^ Pergament, Rachel. "Susan Smith Child Murderer or Victim?". Crime Library. TruTV. Archived from the original on December 29, 2011. Retrieved February 24, 2012.
  9. ^ a b Chuck, Elizabeth (July 23, 2015). "Susan Smith, Mother Who Killed Kids: 'Something Went Very Wrong That Night'". NBC News.
  10. ^ "John D. Long Lake". Retrieved June 18, 2016.
  11. ^ Montaldo, Charles (April 1, 2018). "Susan Smith — Profile of a Child Killer". Retrieved February 24, 2012.
  12. ^ Kemp, Kathy (April 17, 2005). "In The Arms of Angels" (PDF). Birmingham News. Birmingham, Alabama: Advance Publications. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 24, 2011.
  13. ^ Cahill, Harrison (October 18, 2014). "Susan Smith: 20 years later, case still a shocker". The State. Columbia, South Carolina: The McClatchy Company. Retrieved June 9, 2016.
  14. ^ a b c d Bragg, Rick (July 19, 1995). "Arguments Begin in Susan Smith Trial". The New York Times. Retrieved December 25, 2014.
  15. ^ a b O'Neill, Ann (January 12, 2011). "Lawyer keeps even the most loathed criminals off death row". CNN. Retrieved December 26, 2014.
  16. ^ Pergament, Rachel. "Child murderer or victim?". Crime Library. TruTV. Archived from the original on October 18, 2012.
  17. ^ Hewitt, Bill (March 13, 1995). "Tears of Hate & Pity". People. Vol. 43, no. 10. New York City: Time, Inc. Retrieved October 28, 2010.
  18. ^ "Sex with Child Killer Charged Again". ABC News. September 26, 2017. Retrieved September 13, 2018.
  19. ^ "Former South Carolina prison guard says Susan Smith could kill again if paroled". WYFF Greenville. February 4, 2020.[dead link]
  20. ^ Fonrouge, Gabrielle (November 18, 2020). "Susan Smith, convicted of killing her young sons, could be freed in 2024". New York Post. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  21. ^ "Arrested Development: "The Cabin Show"/"For British Eyes Only"". The A.V. Club. November 13, 2012. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  22. ^ Coupe, Stuart (September 1995). "Just a Drummer" (PDF). Drum Media. Australia. Retrieved May 27, 2022.
  23. ^ Jenkins, Mark (July 19, 1996). "Hayden's Edge". The Washington Post. United States. Retrieved November 1, 2022.
  24. ^ Menconi, David (February 11, 1995). "Continental Drift". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 18.
  25. ^ Bowling for Columbine at IMDb
  26. ^ "'Dangerous Black Guys' from Bowling for Columbine". Vimeo. Retrieved July 10, 2022.

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