October 11th, 2011
“I didn’t do it.” These were Jamar Phelps’ last words. Moments later he was put to death in a South Carolina gas chamber. Finally, Susan and David Smith can get on with their lives. The agony began October 7th, 1994, when Phelps, a criminal with a long record, including a carjacking conviction, ordered Susan Smith out of her car at gunpoint at a traffic light 20 miles outside of Columbia. The horror was that Susan’s two sons, Alex and Michael, were strapped into their baby seats. For the next month, the nation listened to Susan’s agonized pleas for their safe return.
On November 30th, Susan Smith’s maroon Mazda Protege was discovered in John D. Long Lake, 20 miles outside of Columbia. Still strapped into their seats were the bodies of the two boys. Area teenagers had recognized Phelps from the polilce artist’s composite. Although Phelps admitted he’d been fishing there on October 27th, He protested he knew nothing about the carjacking. Numerous pieces of evidence tying Phelps to the crime were introduced — a key fitting a Greyhound bus station locker and found in the Mazda — was his undoing. It was a locker Jamar Phelps was known to have used in late October. Public defender David Bruck argued that this evidence was circumstantial, but the jury found it sufficient to remove reasonable doubt.
The preceding is a what if. What if Susan Smith had been a better liar? What if a black guy had been seen in a car like hers? Around that lake? And he matched the description she gave? And he’d been nabbed befor she broke down and told the truth? If it had all played out like that and he’d been found guilty — as she was — would he have gotten the death sentence? Does a hobby horse have a hickory dick?
This kind of thing happens year after year. When guilty people, or ambitious prosecutors, try to railroad innocent people, they succeed often enough. It’s why we have to do away with the death penalty.
(Note: Susan Smith had indeed killed her children by deliberately allowing her car to roll down a bank and into the lake with them strapped in their seats. She did not get the death penalty, but is serving a life sentence. Probably because she is white. The picture above is the police sketch of the supposed carjacker).