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Celebrity Convict's Myth Exposed : Admitted Killer's Possible Parole Prompts Protests

July 05, 1989|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

Smith and Buckley were an unlikely pair--the convicted murderer and the ultraconservative columnist--and their friendship attracted much attention. Buckley championed Smith's cause in his columns and encouraged him to write about the case. Smith eventually published two books while on Death Row.

In an Esquire magazine article questioning Smith's conviction, Buckley wrote: "Doesn't it strain the bounds of credibility that an essentially phlegmatic young man, of nonviolent habits, would so far lose control of himself, in the space of a minute or two, as to murder under such circumstances a 15-year-old girl he hardly knew?"

Buckley donated his fee from the article to Smith and helped set up a defense fund. Smith eventually had enough money from the fund and his book sales to hire top legal representation to challenge his conviction.

Judge Sides With Smith

The prestigious Washington law firm of Edward Bennett Williams took over his case in the late 1960s, and by 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a hearing to determine if an incriminating statement that Smith made to police had been legally obtained. A circuit court judge in New Jersey ruled that Smith had not been advised of his legal rights and that his statement had been obtained by coercion. He ordered Smith be retried or released.

"We were prepared to retry Smith, but, without his statement, we had a weak case for first-degree murder because we couldn't prove premeditation," said Edward Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Smith's final appeal. "We felt certain we could convict him of second-degree murder. But he'd already served 14 years--far more than the average second-degree sentence. He'd already maxed out."

Smith was released from prison, picked up in a limousine, and then appeared on Buckley's television show, "Firing Line." He spent his first night out of prison in a suite at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City.

Smith's release and his celebrity status struck a raw nerve among those who prosecuted him, Fitzpatrick said. And many in the New Jersey town where Smith lived were incensed, Fitzpatrick said, by the way he "tried to put the blame" on one of his friends.

"When Smith got out of prison, a lot of people assumed the friend did it," Fitzgerald said. "I know this guy went through hell and never recovered from it. He had to move away from this area, the area where he grew up and where his family lived.

"He was another victim of Smith."

Smith cashed in on his celebrity during the first few years after his release. He wrote another book, called "Getting Out," and sold a number of articles about prison reform to newspapers and national magazines. But his message soon grew redundant. And the Edgar Smith living in suburban New Jersey did not have the cachet of the Edgar Smith facing the electric chair.

When Paige Hiemier married Smith in 1974, he was broke and having trouble interesting editors in his stories.

"I was 19 years old and very naive," said Hiemier, who divorced Smith after his second crime. "I was impressed with him. He was friends with Bill Buckley and all these other famous people. And he'd written three books. In all of them he proclaimed his innocence. I believed him."

The couple moved to San Diego in 1974. He found work as a security guard for an exclusive apartment building in La Jolla. Apparently, Hiemier said, his background was never checked. He later worked as a public relations director for a small business in Chula Vista, but when the company disbanded he was out of work again.

Their marriage was strained, Hiemier said, because she was going to nursing school while working full-time as a bank teller, but Smith made no effort to find another job. They frequently argued but, Hiemier said, she still had no idea that Smith was capable of a brutal murder.

"He never once hit me; he was never violent at all around me," Hiemier said. "The only time I really questioned was one night we were roughhousing in the living room, just having fun. He suddenly grabbed me by the neck and was actually choking me. For no reason. I was really scared. I shouted that he was hurting me, and he stopped. That's when I started to have some doubts."

Turned Down for Job

Smith finally resumed his job search in the fall of 1976, Hiemier said. He approached an editor at the San Diego Union, a friend of Buckley, about a job, but the editor told him there were no openings.

The next day he abducted Lefteriya Ozbun.

"I don't think Edgar can handle life outside of prison," said Hiemier, who now is a nurse in New York City. "He'll be fine for periods of time, but when he's frustrated or feeling rejected, he can't deal with it. I know he was feeling rejected by me at the time, and I know he was feeling rejected by the newspaper. And, like the first crime in New Jersey, he reacted with violence."

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