The battered body of a 15-year-old girl was found along the bank of a sand pit in a small New Jersey town. Her skull had been crushed with a 44-pound boulder and her body beaten with a baseball bat.
Edgar Smith, a 23-year-old acquaintance of the girl, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. While on Death Row in a New Jersey prison, he began corresponding with conservative columnist William F. Buckley, who eventually became convinced of Smith's innocence. Smith's fight for freedom soon became a cause celebre on the East Coast.
In 1971, after 14 years on Death Row, the longest stretch in the nation's history at that point, Smith was released from prison. A New Jersey judge ruled that his statement to police had been illegally obtained.
During the next few years Smith parlayed his identity as a wrongfully convicted man into a living. He appeared on hundreds of radio and television talk shows and lectured at colleges, collecting $1,000 speaking fees.
But in 1976, the myth Edgar Smith had carefully constructed was suddenly exposed as a lie.
Smith abducted a woman in San Diego and stabbed her with a six-inch butcher knife. But unlike the New Jersey killing, there was an eyewitness to this crime--the victim. Lefteriya Lisa Ozbun survived the stabbing and testified against Smith.
During the trial, after spending two decades protesting his innocence, Smith finally admitted killing the girl in New Jersey.
Smith was convicted in San Diego of kidnaping and attempted murder and sentenced to San Quentin Prison. He first became eligible for parole in 1982, and has been turned down five times, but during the mid-1980s his prison psychological evaluations steadily improved. The California Board of Prison Terms this month will set another parole hearing date, providing Smith with his latest chance for freedom.
Many who are familiar with Smith's crimes are outraged by the prospect of his release. A flood of letters, including a number from New Jersey residents, has been sent to the parole board, urging that Smith never be released.
"He killed one girl, got a second chance and then tried to kill me," Ozbun said in an interview. "I don't want him released. Ever. I don't want anybody else to go through what I went through."
Neither Smith nor Buckley would grant interviews. But in a letter to a Times reporter, Smith railed against his former prosecutors in New Jersey and, in a leap of logic, blamed them for his attack on Ozbun, and claimed that he, too, is a victim.
"Don't ask me why I did it," Smith wrote from prison. "Ask those self-righteous public servants why they gave me the opportunity to do it. Ask them why they did that to Lisa Ozbun. And ask them why they did that to me . Those are the questions they aren't going to want to answer, but which need answering, which Lisa Ozbun and I need answered."
Argument Called Rhetoric
Many who have followed Smith's case say his argument is simply rhetoric from a jailhouse lawyer who is fighting to get out of prison again.
"If the parole board lets him out, I guarantee you, they'll regret it," said Ron Callisi, who wrote a book about the Smith case and whose father prosecuted Smith in New Jersey. "Look, this guy's a sick ticket. He enjoys killing women. When are people going to finally realize Edgar Smith can't be trusted?"
The jury in New Jersey deliberated only 2 1/2 hours--including a lunch break--before deciding in 1957 that Smith had murdered high school sophomore Vickie Zielinski.
The prosecution argued at the trial that Zielinski had spent the evening studying with a friend and was walking back to her parents' house when Smith, an unemployed machinist who lived in a trailer park with his wife and small daughter, offered her a ride home. Smith instead drove Zielinski to a sand pit on the edge of town and attempted to seduce her. When she resisted and ran from the car, he chased her down a hill and attacked her with a baseball bat, according to court records. Smith then dragged her, still alive, back to the sand pit and crushed her skull with a boulder.
The jury, dismissing Smith's claim that he had last seen the victim on the night of her death with one of his friends, recommended the death penalty. During his first few years on Death Row, few expressed much interest in his case. Smith busied himself studying law and filing numerous appeals of his conviction.
He regularly read the prison chaplain's copy of the National Review, the conservative journal William F. Buckley edits. But when the chaplain was transferred, Smith could no longer find a copy of the magazine. Buckley heard about Smith's plight and gave him a free subscription and the two began corresponding.
Smith asked Buckley to talk to a private detective whom his mother hired to investigate the murder. Buckley became interested in the case and, after studying the court record, was convinced that "the state's narrative of the case was inherently implausible," he later wrote.