The Ultimate Price

updated 01/30/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/30/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

FOR MORE THAN TWO MONTHS, Thomas E. Pope stubbornly kept his own counsel on the biggest decision of his career. And so there was a sense of drama when the lanky 6'4" circuit solicitor rose to his feet in a packed Union, S.C., courtroom last week and announced he would seek the death penalty for confessed child killer Susan Smith, 23. Despite the fact that her own lawyer, David Bruck, had been informed of the decision several days earlier, the defendant—who admitted to drowning her two young sons, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, by rolling her car, with them in it, into a lake last Oct. 25—broke into sobs. When Smith—and her lawyer—refused to speak, the judge was forced to enter a not-guilty plea on her behalf.

Pope, at 32 the youngest prosecutor in the state, believes the brutality of the crime, not to mention Smith's attempts to mislead the police by claiming a black carjacker had made off with the children, obliged him to call for the electric chair. If jurors are persuaded by his case, Smith could be the first woman executed in South Carolina since 1947. "Last fall, she asked, 'Whoever's got my babies, bring them back,' " says Pope. "I've got those videos. Whenever I get down and tired, I watch one and it gets me fired back up."

Before revealing his decision, Pope heard pleas from Smith's relatives and friends asking that he take into account her emotional state: they claim that she writes letters to her dead children. Those calls for mercy were joined by Union County Sheriff Howard Wells, a Smith family friend who led the search for the missing boys. Wells said that letting Smith plea-bargain for life imprisonment might be better for the community. But Pope remained unmoved, noting that the state does not have a law calling for life sentence without parole. "A 'life' sentence means 20 years, and that's just not enough for this crime."

That opinion was seconded by many Union citizens, including Smith's estranged husband, David, 24. "He's lost his entire family," says Doug Smith, David's uncle. "It is not easy for him to come up with a position on this, but he is comfortable with what the solicitor has decided."

A native of Rock Hill, S.C., Tommy Pope was one of four children of J. Elbert Pope, 77, a local sheriff, and his wife, Elizabeth, a schoolteacher who died in 1988. In 1981, while attending the University of South Carolina at Columbia, Pope took a part-time job at the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, a state investigation bureau. "I started going on narcotics raids, and it basically took over my life," Pope recalls. "We call it getting blue lights in your blood."

Pope graduated from the university's law school in 1987, spent six months on the state narcotics task force as a legal adviser, then worked as an assistant prosecutor for three years. In 1991, while working for the York county sheriffs office, he ran for the prosecutor's job. "It was odd, working undercover narcotics and at the same time fixin' to run for office, where you want everybody to know your face," he says with a laugh. Still he won the election with 56 percent of the vote, but his first marriage broke up that year. Pope remarried radiologist Kimberly Greenwood last July.

Pope admits that he sometimes gets "extremely emotional" in the courtroom. Observers say that during the trial, tentatively set to begin on April 24 in Union, he will need all his cool when facing off with Smith's attorney, David Bruck, considered one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the state.

Despite the difficulty of the task ahead, Pope says he is confident he will prevail. "I feel extremely comfortable with the decision. I have no regrets, and I will prosecute the case to the end."

DON SIDER in Union

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