Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
On October 5, 1994, an unassuming 23-year-old woman named Susan Smith seized the national spotlight when she called police to report that her two children had been kidnapped by an anonymous Black man during a carjacking. But the Union, South Carolina mom’s dramatic story turned out to be a tall tale—and nine days after those initial claims, Smith admitted there had been no assailant and no kidnapping.
In fact, Smith had drowned her two sons, 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander, by launching her car into the local John D. Long Lake. The two boys were strapped into their car seats inside the vehicle at the time.
When the murders occurred, Smith—then married to a man named David Smith—was involved in an extramarital relationship with a wealthy man who reportedly didn’t want kids. Smith believed that getting rid of her children was the only way to please her new lover, Tom Findley—the son of the owner of the company where Smith worked as a secretary—who didn’t want children. Findley had reportedly ended their romance just days before Smith committed the crimes.
During Smith’s murder trial, her stepfather, Beverly Russell, testified that he and Smith had a consensual sexual relationship two months before she drowned her sons. He also admitted sexually assaulting Smith when she was 16, but said that she and her mother never pressed charges.
Russell asked the jury to spare Smith’s life, saying he bore some of the responsibility of the crime.
On July 22, 1995, Smith was convicted of both boys’ murders and sentenced to life in prison. When she was spared the death penalty, her husband stated on the courthouse steps, “I’ll never forget what Susan has done, and I’ll never forget Michael and Alex.” He also expressed disappointment with her sentence: “Me and my family, of course, are disappointed that the death penalty wasn’t the verdict.”
Smith’s Trouble in Prison
In 2000, an imprisoned Smith became embroiled in controversy again after allegedly having sex with a prison guard named Houston Cagle. He was subsequently fired from his job and spent three months in jail after pleading guilty to the illicit sexual relationship. Later, another prison worker, Alfred Rowe, pleaded guilty to an illegal sexual relationship with Smith. Rowe received five years of probation in 2001.
In the decades since her conviction, Smith has said she regrets her crimes.
On January 19, 2015, Smith wrote a letter to Columbia, South Carolina’s The State newspaper explaining what allegedly drove her to kill her children. She claimed it wasn’t her lover’s demands that prompted the violent acts, writing:
“The thing that hurts me the most is that people think that I hurt my children in order to be with a man. That is so far from the truth. There was no motive, as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.” She also noted, in something of a contradiction, that she had “planned to kill myself first and leave a note behind telling what had happened.”
Controversy Over Smith’s False Kidnapping Story
In the same letter, Smith also wrote that she’d concocted the false story about the kids’ abductions because she “didn’t know how to tell the people who loved Michael & Alex that they would never see them again.”
Smith was accused of being racist for blaming an invented Black man for her crimes.
On national TV, she sobbed as she described the false kidnapping, claiming the man seized control of her car as she waited at a stoplight, then forced her out at gunpoint and drove off with her sons. When it was revealed that she was lying, anger arose in both local and national African American communities.
The lake where Smith killed Michael and Alex went on to become a macabre tourist attraction. It drew countless visitors who wanted to take pictures or leave flowers for the boys, and in 1996, its grim reputation darkened even more when seven people (including four kids) drowned there, after stopping to look at the two kids’ memorials.
Where Is Susan Smith Now?
Not surprisingly, Smith’s life in prison has been fairly rocky. According to jail records reviewed by People magazine, Smith has committed a number of infractions while behind bars, ranging from drug-use issues to self-harm, and has lost a variety of privileges for these infractions (such as loss of phone, canteen and visitation privileges).
According to a prison source who talked to People last year, Smith is currently on a better path at Leath Correctional Institution, in Greenwood County, South Carolina, in anticipation of her possible 2024 parole. “She’s behaving herself these days,” the source said. “She knows that her parole date is four years away and she can’t get parole if she isn’t being good.”
In 2020, Melissa Moore, a crime correspondent for The Dr. Oz Show, said that while communicating with Smith in prison, she realized Smith was “a joy to talk to,” saying, “If she did not commit those crimes, she would be your best friend.”
Though she’s eligible for parole in just a few short years, it remains unclear whether Smith will be able to convince a parole board to release her, given the severity of her crimes and her prior record of infractions in prison.
In November 2020, Jon Ozmint, former director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, told the New York Post that Smith will “…always be a manipulative person, it’s who she is.”
He also said he didn’t anticipate the woman being freed anytime soon. “It is highly unlikely Susan will make parole…at least not the first time,” Ozmint noted.