Susan Leigh Smith of South Carolina strapped her boys into her car, drove straight into John D. Long Lake, and then tried to blame it all on a Black man in October 1994.

Susan Smith suffered unspeakable tragedy from a young age. Her father committed suicide when she was six years old, and she attempted suicide at the age of thirteen. Smith’s new stepfather began molesting her after her mother remarried. She married David Smith at the age of 19 to start her own family, despite being plagued by lifelong trauma. But she destroyed her own family in 1994 when she murdered her children.

David and Susan Smith’s marriage was fraught with infidelity. Meanwhile, David had no idea she was depressed or had a dependent personality disorder. He also had no idea that his wife had been dumped by a wealthy South Carolina man who didn’t want children. Susan Smith drowned her own children because of this.

On July 22, 1995, Susan Smith was found guilty of murdering her children.

Susan Smith’s children, three-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander, joined her for a drive one day in October 1994. She then purposefully rolled her car into John D. Long Lake in Union County, South Carolina,and left them to die.

Furthermore, she told police that a Black man had carjacked her and her children. But her lies eventually came crashing down, revealing the horrible truth about what happened to Susan Smith’s children.

From a traumatic childhood to an unhappy marriage

Susan Leigh Vaughan was born on September 26, 1971, in Union, South Carolina, as the youngest of three children and the only girl. Tragic events occurred in 1977, when her father, Harry Ray, committed suicide. Susan dealt with her grief by keeping his coin collection and an audio recording of her father’s voice, but she attempted suicide when she was 13 years old.

When her mother, Linda, married Beverly C. Russell Jr., it appeared that the family’s fortunes were improving. Russell, a divorced father of three, was a successful stockbroker and a member of both South Carolina’s Republican and Christian Coalition communities. He was molesting his 15-year-old stepdaughter at home, fondling her breasts and genitals.

When Susan was 16, she told her high school guidance counsellor and her mother about the abuse. Linda confronted her husband on the subject. He vowed never to do it again and agreed to family therapy, but he continued to abuse Susan, who revealed this in February 1988.

 John D. Long Lake

She attempted suicide again later that year. Susan, who worked part-time at a Winn-Dixie supermarket, was overwhelmed after an older, married coworker ended an affair with her and attempted suicide by swallowing an overdose of aspirin. Doctors labelled her behaviour as “adjustment disorder” and blamed it on stress.

Susan Vaughan told her psychiatrist in 1989 that her “affair” with her stepfather was mutual. Susan expressed her displeasure with her mother receiving so much male attention. She would eventually find a partner in David Smith, a fellow Winn-Dixie supermarket employee who was raised by strict parents as a Jehovah’s Witness.

After only about a year of dating, they married. The 19-year-old bride was already two months pregnant with her first child, Michael, while her 20-year-old groom had lost a brother to Crohn’s disease and had his father attempt suicide within a year of their marriage.

They both came from families tormented by tragedy. But their own family would turn out to be unhappy as well. The Smiths began arguing and cheating on each other almost as soon as they were married.

The Horrific Murder Of Susan Smith’s Children

Susan Smith’s most passionate extramarital affair occurred in 1993 with a newfound employee at Conso Products. In January 1994, she began sleeping with her boss’s son, Tom Findlay. But the rich, handsome 27-year-old called it quits with her in October, writing Smith a letter clarifying that he wasn’t ready for a relationship with children.

They had a particularly distressing conversation on October 25. Findlay described Smith as “upset because David knew, or so she thought, some information that he was going to make public that upset her.” It was later revealed that Smith had continued to have sexual relations with her former stepfather.

He then asked Findlay to leave after insulting her by claiming she had slept with his father. Three hours later, she resolved that if Findlay didn’t want children, she would remove her own children from the picture.

Susan Smith loaded her children into her 1990 Mazda Protege and drove away three hours later. She rolled her car into John D. Long Lake as she approached it, then fled the scene, leaving her two children to drown.

She then reported her car stolen and her children missing, even claiming that a Black man had kidnapped her and taken her sons. She went on television for nine days, pleading tearfully for their safe return.

But, with police suspicious of her flimsy story, Smith finally relented and confessed on November 3. Her trial began shortly after that.

The funeral of Susan Smith’s kids, Michael and Alexander.

Smith’s defence attorney, David Bruck, argued that her actions were motivated by mental illness brought on by her father’s suicide, sexual abuses, and emotional rejections. Thomas Pope, the lead prosecutor, painted a very different picture. He claimed Smith was a murderous manipulator who murdered her children in order to reclaim Findlay’s love.

On July 22, 1995, the jury, apparently unconvinced by Smith’s defense, deliberated for two and a half hours and quickly found her guilty. Susan Smith was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.

Susan Smith Today and Her Crimes’ Legacies

Susan Smith is currently imprisoned at the Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, South Carolina. Her behaviour in prison has only increased her notoriety, as she has been caught smoking marijuana and sleeping with a correctional officer. She broke her decades-long silence in 2015 with a letter to South Carolina’s The State for the crimes that landed her in prison in the first place.

“It’s been difficult listening to lie after lie and not being able to defend myself,” the letter said. “To put it mildly, it’s frustrating. What bothers me the most is that people believe I harmed my children in order to be with a man. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.”

Even now Susan Smith maintains that it was only a temporary, albeit violent, break from her normal mental state that caused her to harm her children. Though the court of public opinion has largely sided with the prosecution, the state will have to actually consider Smith’s pleas in 2024, when she’ll be eligible for parole.

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