Both reportedly grew up going to church and both apparently had grown away from it. Both had scuffles with the law. Smith's husband was killed in a fight among several men in 2001, and she had given up custody of their child to a relative after a series of petty arrests. Now she is piecing her life back together, studying to become a medical assistant and paying the bills as a waitress in a sports bar.
Nichols grew up in Baltimore in a stable family, his mother working for the Internal Revenue Service. He went to Cardinal Gibbons School, an all-male Catholic school. He played football at two small colleges and worked as a computer programmer at Hewlett-Packard for several years, friends and relatives have said. More recently he was working at UPS.
Killing-spree suspect Brian Nichols, right, arrives in court last week in Atlanta.
(Ric Feld -- AP)
His life began to unravel last year when, apparently dating two women, he allegedly raped and held his long-term girlfriend captive.
After one hung jury on the rape charges, a new trial was beginning. Nichols's second girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy three days before the shootings. Barry Hazen, his lawyer, told Nichols about the birth the next morning, but his client did little more than smile. "His reaction was flat. There was not a lot of response," Hazen says. "I think he was concerned about the predicament he was in with the rape trial. . . . It was all-consuming."
In this scenario, Weems points out, Nichols was not a narco-terrorist thug but a common man who apparently snapped under pressure. This made his bond with Smith more pragmatic than mystical.
For the Rev. Paul Raushenbush, associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, that bond helped the key moment unfold: Smith and Nichols were reportedly watching the manhunt on television when Nichols said he couldn't believe that was himself he was seeing.
"She brought him back from that sense of alienation to being himself, and then he could see her as a person like he was," Raushenbush says. "That was probably what saved her life -- he came to realize the killer with the gun on television wasn't really who he was. He was just Brian. . . . When gentleness overcomes violence, well, that's one definition of God's intervention."
That doesn't mean that God provides a happy ending. There are four grieving families of the slain victims -- each of whom might have reached out to Nichols if given a chance. And Nichols's own family, his brother said in a televised interview with CNN's Larry King, is devastated.
"You know, I don't want to hear, 'Are they going to kill him? They're going to kill him. They're going to fry him.' I don't want to hear that, I don't even want to think that," Mark Nichols, a barber in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told King.
Most plaintively, there is the voice of Nichols's 13-year-old daughter, Jasmine Jay, whom, we are told, he abandoned shortly after her birth.
Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America" last Tuesday, the honor student said she had a message for her dad, in case he was watching from jail.
"I want to let him know that even after all that he's been through, I want him to know that I still do love him because he is my father," she said. "And I just want to ask him, you know, why hasn't he been in contact for all these years? I want to know that."
Murder, loss, faith, redemption and loss yet again. A story of the Bible, yes, but perhaps more Old Testament than New.