Why convicted child killer Susan Smith thought she could get away with murdering her young sons

“Susan Smith writes a letter saying, ‘I’m not a monster.’ News flash! Yes you are!”

On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith rolled her car off of a South Carolina pier and into a lake with her two small children strapped inside. It’s been decades since the murders occurred, but Smith, locked up in a maximum security prison, still fails to take full responsibility for the heinous act that left two young boys dead and a community torn apart.

Smith, 23 at the time and a single mother, spent nine days pleading for help in locating her two sons, Michael Daniel Smith, 3, and Alexander Tyler Smith, 1. She claimed that on the night her sons disappeared, a black male approached her at a stop light, forced her out of her red Mazda Protégé, stole her car, and drove away with her two sons still inside the vehicle.

On November 3, 1994, following a nationwide search and an in-depth investigation, Smith admitted she strapped her boys in her car, then let it roll into the John D. Long Lake in Union County. Authorities later found both children dead inside the car, around 60 feet from the shore.

A red Mazda similar to Susan Smith’s was used  during a re-enactment during her trial.  [Photo: AP/Tim Kimzey]
Although it took almost two weeks to get a confession from Smith, detectives doubted the sincerity of her story from almost the beginning of the investigation. One of the biggest red flags was Smith’s claim that someone carjacked her at a red light. That particular stoplight, located in Union City on Highway 49 behind the Monarch Mill Textile Plan, only turned red if another car approached it from the cross street. Smith told authorities there was no one around when the alleged carjacking took place.

“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 S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED), who worked on the case. “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.”

The motive appeared to be Smith’s obsession with a man who bluntly told her that he didn’t want to get into a serious relationship with anyone who had children. Although Smith said her love interest had nothing to do with it, she killed her children just days after the man, a son of a prominent business owner, wrote her a letter and explained to her had no plans to “play stepfather” to her kids.

Visitors walk down the ramp where Alex and Michael Smith were drowned in a car in 1994 in Union, S.C., on Sunday, July 9, 1995. [Photo:AP /Lou Krasky]
To further aggravate the situation, several black men in Union County and surrounding areas were subjected interrogations after Smith claimed a black male stole her car. Joseph Scott Morgan, a forensics investigator and scholar of Applied Science as Jacksonville State University, said Susan’s actions left a scar on the black community in one of the most self-centered acts he’s ever heard of.

“It’s the single most—just self-centered act that anyone could possibly commit to my way of thinking, because at the time I was working still as an investigator with the medical examiner in Atlanta. We watched this case and it just gave me a bad feeling from the beginning, relative to what she was saying and how she was reacting.”

Susan Smith
[Photo: South Carolina Department of Corrections]
In the beginning, Smith clearly seemed to think her story of a fictional man stealing her car would help her get away with murder. Yet, when Union County Sheriff, Howard Wells, confronted Smith and told her that her made-up story caused “deep pain” among innocent black people and ” racial divisiveness” in the community, Smith broke down, confessed, and claimed she wanted to kill herself. Regardless, her fake story left a sting among black communities across the nation.

“I guess she figured if she said a black man did it people would believe her no matter what kind of story she came up with,” Tyrone Mason, a tennis coach in Chicago, told the New York Times. “That’s what hurts. As long as it’s allegedly a black man involved, America will fall for anything.”

“Susan Smith was in tune with the racism in society,” Dr. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, added. “She knew what would work best to direct attention away from her: point the finger at a black man.”

It didn’t take long for Smith to line up another defense attempt. She lawyered up after authorities arrested her; her defense attorneys wasted no time painting a picture of a depressed, suicidal, and mentally ill woman who didn’t realize what she was doing at the time. Information emerged that Smith was sexually assaulted as a child, which her lawyers heavily relied on to garner sympathy for her.

Yet, despite her defense team’s earnest defense and a doctor’s psychiatric diagnosis of dependent personality disorder and major depression, a jury convicted Smith on two counts of murder in 1995, and sentenced her to life in prison.

During her time in prison, Smith has been caught in a multitude of infractions involving male corrections officers. Prison guard, Houston Cagle, and prison captain, Alfred Rowe, both admitted to having sex with the child killer. Cagle ended up spending three months in jail for his indiscretion, while Rowe received five years of probation. Both men lost their jobs.

Smith abused narcotics and used marijuana on a number of occasions, according to prison records. She was also involved in self-mutilation and attempted suicide.

In 2015, Smith reached out to South Carolina’s The State news reporter, Harrison Cahill, and wrote him a letter, claiming that she wasn’t the monster that society labeled her as.

“Mr. Cahill, I am not the monster society thinks I am. I am far from it…I didn’t know how to tell the people who loved Michael and Alex that they would never see them again. Something went very wrong that night. I was not myself. I was a good mother and I loved my boys. … There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.”

CrimeOnline‘s Nancy Grace summed Smith’s letter up in a way that most people affected by Smith’s actions likely feel.

“Susan Smith writes a letter saying, ‘I’m not a monster.’ News flash! Yes you are!”

Smith is up for parole in 2024.

[Feature Photo: South Carolina Department of Corrections/Handout]