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Hints of trouble, and a relative's terrible deed

AT THE WOMEN'S CORRECTIONAL Center near Columbia, S.C., she is confined in what is called the Administrative Segregation Unit, meaning she has little contact with guards and none at all with other prisoners. In her spartan, 14-by-6-foot cell, she has all the time she could possibly want to contemplate the enormity of her crime. Yet four months after Susan Smith, 23, drove her two young sons, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, into John D. Long Lake outside Union, S.C., with the boys strapped in their car seats, she claims she still cannot fathom why she killed them. During her weekly meetings with her family, she often echoes the incredulous reactions to the murders heard throughout the country. "She cries out to me, 'Why?' " says her brother Scotty Vaughan, 32. "At times I get angry at her, but then I know that something went wrong and that the Susan I know is not to blame. And then I feel sorry for her and I hurt for her."

Whether a jury, if it comes to that, will share his sympathy is another question. In something of a surprise last week, Smith's attorney David Bruck reversed himself and agreed to allow his client to undergo a psychiatric examination to determine whether she is competent to stand trial. If she is found competent (as most experts believe will happen), Bruck said Smith will enter a plea in which she will claim mental illness. All along the assumption has been that such an insanity defense is his only viable option, given that Smith has already confessed and that in January prosecutor Tommy Pope announced his intention to seek the death penalty. But last week's developments were only the latest in a case where the dynamics have abruptly changed in recent weeks—especially in the court of public opinion. No longer is the Smith family virtually alone in seeing Susan as tragically, suddenly, caught in the grip of some terrible impulse. Still, her mother, Linda Russell, 50, professes not to pay much heed ultimately to what others think. "I'm Susan's mom and I love her," says Linda, who granted PEOPLE an exclusive print interview. "If love is conditional, it's not much love, is it?"

There are, of course, many folks around Union who continue to feel outrage and hostility toward Smith—over how she cynically tried to blame a black carjacker for the disappearance of her boys on Oct. 25, over how she acted out her lie for nine days, playing for public sympathy, and above all, over how she cold-bloodedly drowned her helpless children. "I know that God does forgive," says 80-year-old Jennie DiMaio, from nearby Landrum, S.C., who has driven with a friend to the lake to pay her respects to Michael and Alex. "But when you think she had all that time driving out here to change her mind and then still destroyed those beautiful babies—well, I believe she deserves the death penalty."

That sentiment is widely shared elsewhere in the United States. In a poll conducted for PEOPLE by the ICR survey group of a national sample of adults, nearly 50 percent of those polled believe that Smith should be executed if found guilty; only 33 percent were opposed. Yet curiously, in the seven weeks since prosecutor Pope raised the specter of executing Smith, a remarkable number of residents in and around Union have softened their own once-harsh views. "The prosecutor asking for the death penalty, well, that changed this town in a matter of minutes," says Carlisle Henderson, whose five-mornings-a-week radio call-in show, The Coffee Sipper's Gospel Hour, is a local ritual. "It shocked people to realize that this girl could be electrocuted. The very same people who were calling into the show a few weeks ago yelling 'Kill her!' or suggesting that she be dragged down the street are now calling in to say, 'Well, hang on, let's pray for her.' "

In a sense, the public's fury toward Smith—the feeling of horror and betrayal—was almost too hot not to cool down. One of those who felt a special enmity was Shirley McCloud, who lives in the house just off Highway 49 where Smith first ran the night the boys disappeared, hysterically spilling out her tale of a black carjacker. "When the truth came out, I was so angry I was just out of it," says McCloud. "Now I feel, well, compassion is the best way to put it. There just had to be something terribly wrong with her for this to have happened, because I can't believe she was evil."

All along, Smith's family has tried to portray her as a relatively normal young woman who suddenly snapped for some unknown reason. "Susan always seemed happy, and all her friends seemed to love her," says Scotty. "And she loved being with people." But the reality is a good deal darker and more complicated. Two weeks ago, after motions by two newspapers, Family Court documents were released showing that at the age of 16, Susan was sexually abused by her stepfather Beverly Russell. According to the legal papers, Russell had fondled her breasts, engaged in open-mouth kissing with her and placed her hand on his genitals.

It is unclear what effect that episode had on the teenager. Clearly, though, it didn't lead to an overt family rupture. Linda and Bev—who declined to discuss the matter—remain married. "It was blown out of proportion," Linda told PEOPLE. In fact, it's Bev, 47, who is the economic linchpin of Susan's defense. A prosperous financial planner in Union and a leader in the Christian Coalition in South Carolina, he has mortgaged the couple's $121,000 home in Union, as well as taken out a $44,000 loan against another real estate holding, to help pay Susan's legal fees.

Then there is the fact that Susan's natural father, Harry Vaughan, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when Susan was 6 years old. (Vaughan, a fireman and mill worker, was apparently distraught over the breakup of his marriage.) Susan herself attempted suicide at least twice. The first known time was when she was 13. She overdosed on over-the-counter drugs, though her mother is uncertain what precipitated the crisis.

Shortly after her graduation from high school in 1989, she again attempted to take her life in a similar fashion. Even then she seemed to have an ability to conceal her torment. Says Scotty: "She never gave me any other indication that anything was wrong." Her marriage in 1991, at the age of 19, to David Smith didn't help get her on the right track. Though they quickly had Michael and Alex, the pair were constantly at odds, with Susan especially depressed over David's attentions toward other women.

For those sympathetic to Susan, the event that put her over the edge came when David Findlay, 27, the son of a prominent local businessman, ended a brief relationship they had started. For Susan, it appears, that effectively ended her dreams of living a comfortable life. (With a monthly take-home salary of $1,100, plus $115 a week in child support, she was barely breaking even after mortgage and car payments and child-care costs.) "She's someone who lost it," says Laura Walker, the owner of Walker's Antiques on Main Street in Union. "She has been betrayed by most of the men in her life—a father who committed suicide, a stepfather who molested her and a husband who cheated on her." But there are others who scoff at the notion that something like molestation, horrible though it is, provides a mitigating circumstance. "I don't see where it has to do with anything," says Lizzie Goudelock, a clerk at Teacher's Corner, a school supply store. "People survive it. They don't kill their children."

When Michael and Alex disappeared last autumn, almost none of Susan's friends and family suspected that she might be involved. The one exception appears to have been her brother Scotty, who now acknowledges that he had some vague—but unmistakable—doubts about her story. "Actually it became my greatest hope that she was hiding them," says Scotty. "I even talked privately with Susan and told her that if she had the children somewhere and was afraid to admit it, that there was a way out of it. But she clung to her story."

The reverberations from her crime and betrayal are still being felt in ways big and small. As best he can, David Smith has tried to resume his life. He is back at his job as the assistant manager at the local Winn-Dixie, working the night shift to avoid contact with the curious who flock to the town. But given the continued fascination with the story, his isolation is far from complete. "He jokes around and tries to be like his old self," says one coworker. "But I always wonder what he's thinking when he sees the tabloids and those stories. They're right there at the cash register, and you can't miss them."

Even more profoundly, people in Union are still grappling with the sense of fear left behind by the murders, especially among young children. A number of parents say that their kids have gone so far as to voice anxiety about their own safety. Scotty recalls being shocked not long ago when his son Nick, 9, while riding in the car, brought up the question. "Just out of the blue he looked at me and asked would I kill him," says Scotty, who with wife Wendy, 32, also has a younger son, Matt, 6. "We've had to reassure them that Susan loved Alex and Michael and something just went wrong, that she wasn't well and that the same thing would never happen to them."

Scotty and the rest of Susan's kin also make no apologies for remaining loyal to her. "In our local paper the other day, they quoted David's father as saying he was sick of us trying to win sympathy for Susan," says Scotty. "I don't know what he thinks we should do. We're not just going to stand by and say, 'Okay, take our family member and do what you will' "

And so once a week, usually on Sunday, Linda and Bev, often accompanied by Scotty and his wife or by Susan's other brother, Michael, 33, make the hour-and-a-half-long drive to the prison where Susan is being held. For the first days after her arrest, she was on suicide watch: She was permitted to wear only a paper dress, and every 15 minutes a guard would come by, look into her cell and note her condition in a log. Even now she is kept under constant surveillance by a video camera mounted on the ceiling. With the end of the suicide watch, she was issued standard prison garb—blue denim shirt and jeans. She eats her three meals a day in her cell, but her family treats her to a weekly Pepsi and a Mr. Goodbar from the prison canteen. Among the books her mother has brought her is the 1982 best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. She also reads Christian devotionals each day.

Like the other prisoners, she is permitted to receive letters, though her attorney Bruck carefully screens her mail to spare her the anguish of hostile notes. She is also free to write as many letters as she pleases. In addition to her family, Smith has often written to her two dead sons, expressing her love and sorrow. According to one knowledgeable source, she has spent much of her time in jail weeping and talking to photos of her sons. "She just has cried rivers," says the source. "She's worried about breaking down too much and being put back on suicide watch."

Her family shares that concern, despite the fact that she has been taking antipsychotic medication and regularly seeing defense psychiatrists. "What we want to do is just make her feel loved and hope that she will have strength and not give up," says Scotty. "She has indicated more than once that she was ready to give up." Given Smith's shaky mental state, the family tries to focus on the practical matters of her day-today well-being. The subject of the killings doesn't really come up. "I never ask her anything because I don't want her to feel like I'm interrogating her," says Scotty. "Somebody else is going to do that."

That somebody is prosecutor Pope, who in addition to preparing for the trial had been waging his own campaign to influence public opinion. At one point in January, Pope accused Bruck of coaching his client on how to act in order to support an insanity plea. "In essence, she has spent three months in insanity training," he said. If Smith is found competent enough to assist in her own defense and stand trial, Bruck, considered one of the top criminal lawyers in the state, will have to prove to jurors that she couldn't tell right from wrong when she committed the crime. In response, Pope will surely hammer away at her nine-day deception as proof that she was well aware of her actions. But as the influential Columbia daily The State said in a recent editorial, "It will be tough to find a jury that could believe a mother in her right mind could kill her two young children in cold blood."

Smith's trial is expected to start in July. Meanwhile no one in Union is expecting to shake off a deep sense of grief anytime soon. "In a town like this," says Don Wilder, the publisher of the Union Daily Times, "you must understand that what happens to one person happens to all, so there's no one here who doesn't feel for these families." To some, it is as if the town itself had been tainted. Renee Kirby, a young Union mother who has a 5-year-old son, Christopher, laments that she will never feel comfortable relaxing at Long Lake, which used to be her family's favorite recreation spot. "Christopher caught his first fish off that dock," she says. "But we haven't fished it since the murders, and I know I'll never throw another line off that dock. Never."

Visitors still stop to leave flowers and notes at the lake in tribute to Michael and Alex. But perhaps because they already carry so much pain in their hearts, many residents say they don't need any further reminders of the crime. A proposal to build a children's park as a permanent memorial at the site has met with a distinctly cool reception. "The idea is morbid," says Union resident Margaret Kennedy. "I can't imagine a mother taking her children out there and saying, 'This is where a mommy killed her boys.' " Adds Laura Walker of Walker's Antiques: "It would be like people digging toenails out of Elvis's rug."

Linda Russell, for one, fully agrees. And she is grateful for the change of heart that has enabled so many neighbors to put aside their hatred of her daughter and feel at least some measure of sympathy. She knows they are confronting one of the central horrors evoked by the murder of Michael and Alex. "Some people don't want to think Susan is a good person who loved her children," says Linda. "So they have to make her a mean, terrible somebody. If not, they think, 'Whatever happened to her could happen to me.' And that scares them."

BILL HEWITT
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT and DON SIDER in Union

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Cameron Wescott,
  • Don Sider.