How the mother of a slain 9-year-old sank into despair, then sought justice

A look at 9-year-old Erika Smith's life, the aftermath of her murder, and her mother Carol's search for peace and justice.
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Erika Georgette Smith was a gorgeous 9-year-old with long black hair and dark brown eyes and honey-brown skin. She loved her cats Pounce and Floppy. She was thin and shy and popular. She was a girlie girl but liked to think of herself as a sporty girl.

Late on the night of Aug. 6, 2002, she was pistol-whipped and shot to death at point-blank range by a man who broke into her father's house in Silver Spring.

The bullet ripped through the back of her neck, down through her heart and out of her chest and hit the floor with such force it left a divot. The killer shot her dad, Greg Russell, an accountant, six times. The killer ran. No motive would ever be known. Greg died after calling 911.

The next morning, Erika's mother, Carol Smith, was at her law office, where she was a director of information technology. She was expecting a giggly phone call from the pair, as Erika was visiting Greg so he could take her to get braces. The phone rang, but it was the human resources director.

When Carol stepped into his office, she saw two detectives.

That evening, a shell of her former self, propped up by her sister, she forced herself to walk into the morgue for corpse identification.

Murder fascinates us, apart from all other crimes, and little is more darkly compelling to the American psyche than the mysterious slaying of a beautiful child. There are real-life horror stories from Adam Walsh to JonBenét Ramsey. There are fictional works, from the superb "Pan's Labyrinth" to the ghastly "The Lovely Bones," which was released in theaters last week.

In part this fascination is triggered by rarity. Americans kill one another all the time, but the most uncommon homicide is strangers killing children. In 2002, 16,229 homicides were committed in the United States. Only 11 of the victims were girls between 6 and 11 killed by a stranger. Erika was one of 11.

How can a parent go on? What happens to the bonds between mother and daughter?

The following account of Carol Smith's life after Erika's death covers more than seven years. It involves crushing despair, a tortuous odyssey through the criminal justice system, being cross-examined in court by the man who killed her child, and, through sheer will, surviving to build a new life.

As it happens, I have had an unusual, front-row seat to this arc of grief. I wrote for the front page of this newspaper a lengthy investigation of how the suspect had tricked prison and parole officials into releasing him a few months before the killings. After the story was published, I developed a friendship with Carol Smith. Four years later, we were married.

That's how it came to be that I stood behind Carol when she talked to the television reporters at the murder trial in the fall of 2008. I held her purse and tried to think of a way to be useful. And about the only way I have found is to write down what happened after Erika died -- to show the hold she retains on the living, the lasting nature of those bonds between mother and daughter.

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