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Valorous Struggle, Whatever the Ending : Praise for police and volunteer effort to find murdered boys in South Carolina

November 05, 1994

It was a heartbreaking crime in a small South Carolina town that gripped the nation: two little boys, age 3 and 14 months, taken from their mother when she was forced from her auto during a carjacking. Everyone imagined how their horrified mother must have reached out to them, screaming, as a cruel thief with a gun ran off not only with her car but with her babies.

But it was not so. The only part of this sad and tragic story that turned out to be true was that Michael and Alexander Smith were indeed victims. It turns out they were murdered,and not by the fictitious armed black man Susan Smith so conveniently blamed.

Investigators say Smith confessed Thursday to the murder of her two sons, after law enforcement agencies and good neighbors had spent more than a week searching for the boys. They were found inside their mother's car, deep in John D. Long Lake near the Smiths' hometown of Union, S.C.

The case bears a disturbing similarity to a 1989 murder in Boston in which Charles Stuart, a store manager, told police that he and his pregnant wife were confronted by a robber who then shot his wife to death.

The killer was described as a black man with a raspy voice and spotty beard and wearing a red jogging suit. Police went into full alert, stopping many an innocent black man along the way.

Turns out Stuart lied, turning suspicion away from himself by manipulating racial fears and giving police the stereotypical description of the urban predator. It worked for months, until Stuart's hoax finally began to unravel and he killed himself by jumping off a bridge.

One positive difference between the Boston and South Carolina cases--authorities more quickly began to suspect that something was awry in Smith's story; she reportedly had failed lie detector tests.

Police and volunteers had worked diligently in honest hope of finding the boys. After all, Smith made several tearful appeals on national television, begging the pretend kidnaper to spare the boys and bring them home. She fooled many people, including those who searched for more than a week in vain.

The Smith case was so compelling that even President Clinton urged the people of Union not to feel betrayed. "I just don't want them to believe that somehow, what the mother did in any way diminishes the quality, the character, the courage of what they did," he said.

The President is right. The people of Union and law enforcement throughout the nation pulled together in hopes of saving two innocent boys. There is glory, not shame, in those selfless efforts to help. There is profound shame only in the act of murdering two children.

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