DAVID BRUCK REGULARLY VISITS his client in the South Carolina Women's Correctional Institution, but no one would be surprised if Susan Smith has trouble focusing on trial strategy. According to those close to her, Smith weeps every day for Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, the children she drowned last October in a lake just outside Union, S.C. People who have seen her recently say that Smith, 23, is "confused" and "seriously depressed and suicidal." Her doctors have searched for a combination of drugs to stabilize her precarious mental condition. "She is suffering torments that are so beyond anything the legal system could ever inflict," Bruck has said. "Her life, whether it be short or long, from now on is going to be a horror."

Bruck will begin to make that case July 10, when Smith's murder trial is scheduled to begin in Union's two-story neoclassical courthouse. There is no debate over her guilt; Smith wrote a detailed confession at the time of her arrest. The question is over the punishment she receives: death, or life imprisonment. During the trial, which is expected to last about 10 weeks, prosecutor Tommy Pope will argue for the electric chair, insisting that Smith knew what she was doing when she drove her car into a lake with Alex and Michael strapped in their car seats. Bruck, a vigorous opponent of the death penalty, will argue for a life sentence, saying that no punishment—even execution—could equal what Smith is already enduring.

Bruck has a formidable task in defending her—but this is the kind of case to which he has devoted his whole career. A 46-year-old veteran of scores of capital murder trials and appeals, Bruck has four times successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for new trials in death penalty cases. If anyone can save Smith from execution, legal experts say, it is Bruck. "David has an unusual depth of knowledge of the law," says Jack Swerling, a top South Carolina defense attorney. "He's not flamboyant or aggressive in court. He's more like an artist. He'll beat the prosecutor on technique and on the law. He's quiet but deadly." Adds famed defense lawyer Gerry Spence: "David despises the death penalty. He is not looking for fame or money. He is looking to satisfy his own soul."

Bruck has offered only the briefest explanation for taking the Smith case. "I had been called by a family in terrible trouble, and I wasn't going to say no," he said before declining interviews, citing Smith's interests.. However, Bruck has hinted at his strategy: he will portray the events at John D. Long Lake as a botched suicide. He is expected to argue that Smith intended to take her life that day, wishing, in what Bruck will call an irrational state of mind, to spare her sons the pain she felt when her father killed himself when she was 6½.

Bruck's background could not be more different from that of his clients. Born into a privileged family in Montreal, one of three children of Gerald, 80, a retired textile executive, and Nina, 72, a photographer, Bruck became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement while an undergraduate at Harvard. He went to law school at the University of South Carolina—a place he chose so that he could advise reluctant inductees at the Army's huge training center at Fort Jackson. He worked as a welder to pay for his schooling. "He didn't want to be beholden to his family," says a friend, attorney John Delgado.

After graduation in 1975, Bruck read of a South Carolina murder defendant who was getting poor legal help while facing the electric chair—a case that fired Bruck's passion to end capital punishment. "He wanted to assist people who were defenseless," says law school classmate Michael O'Connell. "Many of us felt that way in school, but David was one of the few who devoted his career to it."

Defending mostly poor no-hopers accused of murder is hardly lucrative work, and for years Bruck made the rounds of prisons and courthouses in a rusted-out pea-green Toyota. Today he works from an office above a sandwich shop in quiet Columbia, S.C., the state capital. Bruck's family—wife Beverly, 47, a birthing coach, and children Zoe, 7, and Jacob, 5—provide an island of calm and normality.

Perhaps it is because he was born in Canada—where the death penalty was abolished in 1976—that Bruck feels so intensely about defending clients such as Smith. "I find the cold-bloodedness of the whole ritual appalling," he once explained. "To take somebody...and so premeditatedly set about exterminating them."

"David isn't trying to gain anything for himself," says lawyer Lee Coggiola. "His motivations don't come from playing the political game. They come from some incredibly moral and ethical foundation within him that says, '[The death penalty] is wrong.' " Smith's fate now rests with a judge and jury in Union—and with Bruck's powers to persuade.

GREGORY CERIO
DON SIDER in Union

  • Contributors:
  • Don Sider.