Obit watch: September 25, 2017.

Edgar H. Smith Jr. descended into Hell on March 20th of this year. He did so in obscurity, as his death was not noticed until Sunday.

On the night of March 4, 1957, a 15-year old girl named Victoria Zielinski disappeared near her home in Ramsey, New Jersey. Her body was found the next day in a sand pit.

She had been bludgeoned with a rock and a baseball bat, resulting in “a total crushing of the skull,” as an autopsy report put it. Her clothes were in disarray, though she had not been raped.

Mr. Smith came under suspicion. The authorities found bloodstains in his car and on his pants and shoes.

Taken into custody and questioned for hours without a lawyer present, Mr. Smith confessed. This was nine years before the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling requiring that the police warn suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning.
At his trial, he testified that his confession had resulted from coercion and exhaustion. He said he had picked up the girl and driven her to the sand pit, where they began to argue, and that he struck her, drawing blood. But he insisted that he had left her alive, with a friend who had driven up a few minutes later.

Mr. Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. While awaiting his sentence, he taught himself law and began filing appeals. He also wrote a book, “Brief Against Death”, which was published in 1968.

His case also came to the attention of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley came to believe the prosecution’s case had “damning weaknesses” and started promoting Mr. Smith’s innocence.

In 1968, the United States Supreme Court ordered the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to reconsider its decision to deny Mr. Smith a hearing on the validity of his confession. Finally, on May 14, 1971, a Third Circuit judge ruled after a hearing that the confession had indeed been coerced, and that the prisoner must be freed if prosecutors did not retry him.

The state felt their case was even weaker without the confession, so they made a deal with Mr. Smith:

On Dec. 6, 1971, Mr. Smith was allowed to plead no contest to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to the time he had already served. During the court proceeding he said he had killed Victoria Zielinski, but after leaving the courthouse he declared that he had uttered the words only to put his long ordeal behind him. (He had been on death row longer than any other United States prisoner up to that time.)

After he got out of prison, Mr. Smith moved to California.

On Oct. 1, 1976, he abducted a 33-year-old San Diego woman and stabbed her as she struggled to escape his car. Bystanders noted the license plate number, leading the police to Mr. Smith’s apartment. By that time, he had fled to the East. But he decided to turn himself in and flew to Las Vegas, where he was arrested by F.B.I. agents. Mr. Buckley helped arrange the surrender and later expressed regret at having championed Mr. Smith’s cause.
In a nonjury trial, Mr. Smith was convicted of attempted murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

But wait, there’s more:

During the trial, he admitted that he had, in fact, killed Victoria Zielinski. He said he had struck her in the car after she resisted his advances, chased her when she ran away and hit her with the bat. Then, he said, “I picked up a very large rock and hit her on the head with it.”

I swear that I’ve read a long essay by Mr. Buckley about the Smith case, his involvement in it, and his regrets over what happened. But I don’t remember where that essay was…

2 Responses to “Obit watch: September 25, 2017.”

  1. If only you had a friend with a William F. Buckley bibliography…

  2. Possibly his November 20, 1976 column, which was reprinted in A Hymnal, which i have.

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