12/25/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
In her initial story to police, Susan Smith, now 24, wove a tale of almost unimaginable horror. She claimed that a man—specifically, a black man—had commandeered her car at gunpoint on Oct. 25, 1994, on a rural road near Union, S.C., and sped off into the night with her two sons, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months. For nine days she clung tearfully to that account. And then her racially charged tale unraveled, to reveal something infinitely more chilling—a mother who had wantonly drowned her own children by letting her Mazda, with the boys still strapped into their car seats, roll into John D. Long Lake.
At Smith's trial in July, there was no doubt that she would be found guilty. Only two questions remained. The first was whether she would get the death penalty. The jury's ultimate decision to impose a life sentence instead stemmed in large measure from their thoughts about the other lingering issue: How could any mother have committed such a terrible crime?
During the 17-day trial, the defense presented a host of mitigating circumstances familiar to those searching for a social source of evil. Smith's father had committed suicide when she was 6. A decade later her stepfather, Beverly Russell—ex-chairman of the local Christian Coalition—had sexually molested her. At the time of the murders, Smith, who was in the midst of a divorce from husband David, was also distraught over being dumped by Tom Findlay, her boyfriend. If those factors did not explain, much less justify, her actions—the prosecution argued that she saw her sons as an impediment to her romantic life—the jury was still moved by her plight.
Although Smith eluded the death penalty, those who wanted her to suffer greatly for her crime appear to be getting their wish. Now confined to the South Carolina Women's Correctional Institution in Columbia, she has been plagued by uncontrollable crying jags, despite being given Prozac. And soon after what would have been Michael's fourth birthday last October, Smith, who won't be eligible for parole until 2025, was once again put under suicide watch.