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Life after death: A mother copes with her daughter's murder

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.

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Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010; 12:00 PM

Erika Smith was shot to death at point-blank range by a man who broke into her father's house in Silver Spring. She was nine years old.

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Her mother Carol Smith suffered crushing despair and a tortuous odyssey through the criminal justice system. She befriended and eventually married Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker, who documents her story in a two-part series.

Neely Tucker was online Thursday, Jan. 21 at Noon ET to discuss his stories.

A transcript follows.

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Neely Tucker: Hello Everyone,

Welcome to the online chat about the "Life After Death" series.

First, I want to say that I am trying to answer all of the e'mails sent to my Post address, but if you're one of those people and you don't get a reply, please understand there are 100+ at this point, with more coming in all the time, and it is possible for me to miss one or two.

Second, on behalf of Carol, I want to extend her profound thanks and gratitude to all of you who have written about Erika. I have sent her all the emails sent to me. She is extremely touched.

Finally, I'll do my best to get to as many of the questions posted here as I can, so please understand if my answers are short.

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Silver Spring, Md.: More than a question, mine is a hug, a friendly hand holding. No one can feel what this mother, her family and Mr. Tucker went through, but I am so happy that they never gave up on bringing the killer of her child and her father to face the law and finally be put away forever. I am sure you have prevented many killings.

May your child in Heaven and your future children give you the strength to walk through life. Thank you.

Neely Tucker: Thanks for posting this. Carol, that final day in court at sentencing, was just amazing. Presented something like two dozen pictures of Erika, told the court what each one meant, and showed the killer a photograph of her daughter in the funeral home -- and never broke down. It was as moving an experience as I can remember.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: When will the trial finally begin? I enjoyed reading your story on the internet. I wish you and Carol every happiness in your new marriage.

Neely Tucker: See today's story. Part II. Trial was in August of 2008. And thanks!

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Wash, DC: Thank you for sharing your wife's story. I cried the entire time I read it. I will keep Erika and your new babies in my heart and prayers. We just welcomed boy/girl twins into our family and they are such a joy. God bless.

Neely Tucker: Thanks so much for sharing this. Erika is with us every day, and on behalf of Carol, thank you for including her in your prayers. The twins, we are excited but nervous about. Here's hoping we get a couple hours sleep over the next six months.

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Herndon, Va.: Thank you for such a beautiful, poignant, and well-written article. It brought tears to my eyes. Today is my daughter's birthday so the article struck a chord in me. I want to congratulate you on the birth of your twins and for the love that you and Ms. Carol found together. I hope that you will have many years of happiness together. I also have a question: Was there ever a motive found in the killings? Was it home invasion gone horribly wrong?

Neely Tucker: Hi Herndon,

Thanks for the good wishes, and happy b'day to your daughter!

There was never a motive established at trial. Robbery (there were a few items of Greg's recovered in Kelly's truck) is the presumptive one, but a random home invasion gone wrong is probably as good an idea.

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New York, NY: Congratulations on the impending arrival of Erika's siblings! This story has touched my very soul, I read the articles with a lump in my throat; it shows the absolute best and worst of what life can offer. Erika's mom is an amazing woman. I am in awe of her strength and resilience. Just wanted to let you know this will stay with me for a long, long time.

Neely Tucker: Carol is indeed an amazing human being. I think the most touching aspect of her life after Erika has been her humanity, and how she worked to put her life back together. Someone wrote to me yesterday about how you hear about people like John Walsh, who suffer tragedy and go on to create an institution, but not about how someone who endures something like this just learns to put one sock on each day, and then the other. That's part of what I wanted to write about in this series: How to just get your socks on every day.

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New Albany, Ind.: What a gut wrenching story. What a courageous woman. I don't think that I will ever forget this little girl and the story of her life. It breaks my heart. I felt like I was there and knew this family my whole life. My question is Erika buried with her father?

Neely Tucker: Erika is buried at Gate of Heaven cemetery in Aspen Hill. (The spot next to her is for Carol, whenever that time comes.) Greg is buried back in his hometown of Kannapolis, North Carolina.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Carol, I am sorry and I know it really hurt. I was reading the article but had to stop. I really loved Erika. I don't know what to say I am crying now and have to go.

Love

Faye Quarles

Neely Tucker: I loved Erika, too, from the minute I first saw her picture! This was long before I knew Carol. She has that ability, even in photographs, to connect with people. It's one of the ways that I mentioned in the story of how she "retains a hold on the living."

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Vienna, Va.: As a recently bereaved parent myself (9 months ago), I cannot tell you how much it means that you and Carol are willing to share her story and offer hope to those of us still in the depths of depression. I so very much appreciate that her improvement was like ice melting. I completely relate to her journal entry of "pain, pain,pain, pain." For those of us in the early stages, we can only imagine improvement if someone else who has been there tells us it's possible. Thank you.

Neely Tucker: Hello Vienna,

I am so sorry to hear about your loss. A measure of healing IS possible. But it also helps to understand, as I'm sure you know, that there is no "getting over" the pain. One just learns to handle it. The grief specialist quoted in the story said that, in her experience, the arc of grief in cases like this is about a 7-12 year window. I found that enlightening, when so many people would tend to think, "Well, it's been a year or so now, time to move on."

Wishing you the best.

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Laurel, Md.: If Ms. Smith and Mr. Russell had married, would their combined salaries have permitted them to live where Anthony Kellys don't prowl (or at least a lot less often)?

Even without Erika's picture, any reader could surmise the demographic profiles involved. Shouldn't we take away that the traditional family isn't just a luxury for other people?

Neely Tucker: I'm not sure about the "demographic profiles" you reference. As far as combined salaries, suffice it to say that Carol makes far more than I do, and Greg was wealthy enough, at 47, to be retired from corporate American and live on his investments. Money/neighborhood wasn't the issue in this case. Greg, for example, just wrote a check each year for Erika's tuition at the Potomac School. At the time, that was $20,000 per year.

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Fairfax, VA: I'm going to have to wait until I get home to read today's article - reading yesterday's made me cry at work. One thing that struck me in yesterday's article was the part where you said Carol imagined her daughter's final moments over and over in her head. Erika only had to experience the pain of that moment once, but for those who loved her that moment continues to exist. I have lost 2 friends to painful circumstances and I have found myself doing the same thing, replaying their final moments in my head. When I feel like I can't stand it I have to remind myself that they are no longer in that moment.

Neely Tucker: This is a very good observation. Even though I never met Greg or Erika, I found myself (particularly during the trial) obsessed with trying to piece out exactly what happened upstairs that night, the exact sequence of events.

I think what Carol and I have both come to realize is that there is nothing, nothing, nothing good to come of those thoughts, and to compartmentalize (sp?)and minimize them. It's very hard to do that on certain days, like the anniversary of the event.

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To Herndon: Somehow I had the impression from the articles that the "motive" could have been voices the perpetrator was likely hearing in his head, due to his mental illness. Has anyone ever diagnosed him, whether he's schizophrenic, bipolar (or both)?

Neely Tucker: A fair question. But Anthony Kelly has been tried and convicted, or plead guilty, to something like eight or nine different criminal acts over the years before this event. His competency was never questioned until the first part of this trial. It's worth noting that the judge in this case conducted a voir dire and found him competent not only to stand trial, but represent himself. It's also worth noting that the psychologist who found him incompetent was conducting her very first competency exam for the courts.

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Alexandria, VA: Years ago I read your very moving book about your adoption of Chipo; clearly you have an affinity for children. Is she excited about her new siblings, and how is she doing?

Neely Tucker:

Miss Chipo!! Thanks so much for asking. She is now 11 (going on 37) and texting like mad. She's doing just great. She's excited about the twins half the time, and thinking they're going to be a pain in the patootie half the time. I tell her she's right on both counts.

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Vienna, VA: Me again...thank you, Neely, for your reply. I have read probably 30 books on grief since losing my child. Over and over again, I read that the first two years are total misery and often the second year is worse than the first (which I have difficulty imagining)....and that "improvement" doesn't even start to occur until four years and is so slow (your melting ice metaphor) that it's only recognizable in hindsight....I think that's consistent with the 7-12 year arc in your article.

Neely Tucker: I'm posting this for others who share your experience. Thanks for posting it.

And, as a reporter, I came to realize that the research that bears out that 7-12 year arc just isn't widely known or recognized.

The thing that REALLY drives Carol mad is when people, when talk about Erika and her grief, begin sentences with "You should..."

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To Laurel, MD: I cannot believe you would try to make a point about marriage, demographics, money, or any other item on your agenda when the issue on the table is the death of an innocent child and her father. Shame on you and your self-righteous judgments of others.

Neely Tucker: Just posting this relative to the earlier comment. I tend to agree with this poster.

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Upper Marlboro, MD: I cried yesterday and today as I read this article. Such unspeakable pain and horror to endure. I have a three year old daughter and the ability to continue on if something like this happened is unimaginable. Carol has shown tremendous strength, especially having to face that monster in court. My question, has Carol's faith in God been restored?

Neely Tucker: Well, I can't speak for Carol, but I think it fair to say she still believes in God in some fashion, and wants to believe. What she doesn't like is people telling her she SHOULD do this or that, or read this or that Scripture.

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Billings MT: Thank you for sharing such an intimate and heartbreaking story. My sincere condolences to your wife for her ordeal and loss, but I SALUTE her courage. I have a good friend who just retired as a brilliant (he would disagree, modestly) homicide detective after 30 years (in LA), and he said something to me once that I never forgot: "I consider it the greatest honor to be allowed to try and catch and convict killers. There is no greater crime than murder." There ARE more than a few cops like him, for whom it is a moral imperative, in addition to a legal one, to catch killers and see that justice is served. I am glad for every one of them, I hope Carol had a good experience in that way. I pray for her peace and comfort.

Neely Tucker: Hear, hear. The lead detective on this case was Michael Brent. He is retired now and has moved from the area, but drove down to be at the trial just in case he was needed.

To say Carol loves that man is a massive understatement. (And, of course, she feels the same ineffable gratitude for all the officers who worked so hard to solve this case.)

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I remembered when this happened, such a terrible crime to a beautiful child. Reading this story just now brought tears to my eyes. My heart goes out to Carol, I don't know how it feels to lose a child but I am still grieving the loss in May of my husband of 28 years. When grieving the loss of a loved one, all you can do is take one day at a time and keep the faith. Hang in there Carol.

Neely Tucker: Just posting this for Carol.

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Arlington, VA: No offense intended by this question, but it's rare to have a writer in a newspaper have such a personal connection to what's being written. How, if at all, did you deal with the conflict of interest and your own emotions?

Thank you.

Neely Tucker: Fair question.

I left the criminal justice section of reporting at the Post to go another section of the paper (Style) after this story was published. After Carol and I became friends, I informed my bosses that I could in no way participate or help in any of our coverage of the case as it went forward. So as far as the news end goes, I haven't had anything to say on this story since the original story I did.

In writing this piece, of course I made my personal situation clear at the very beginning of the story, and told it in essay fashion from that point forward.

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WDC: Regarding competency issues, I worked previously in a state psychiatric/forensic hospital. While it is true that many individuals suffer gravely from severe psychotic and/or mood disorders that impair their competency, malingering in these cases is also common. Determining competency can be difficult, but I am heartened in this case by the persistence of psychologists (or one, at least) to do so in this case. Given Anthony Kelly's lack of documented history of psychosis, its development at his age would be highly unusual. Drug-induced psychosis does not impact legal competency, at least not in Maryland.

Thank you and Carol for sharing your stories with us. I wish you and your family all the best for much joy and peace ahead.

Neely Tucker: Just posting for the information/perspective. Thanks for sharing it.

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New York, N.Y.: This is a very touching story. How would you describe your relationship with Erica? You've never met her, yet I can almost sense how she has come alive for you through her mother's memories and how present she is in your lives.

Neely Tucker: Excellent question. Carol asked me, before we were married, if I would be Erika's de-facto stepdad. Of course I said yes. It was very flattering. I have found it very humbling, though, to realize how difficult it is to help someone through the loss of their child. I feel incompetent much of the time.

But I *love* hearing Carol talk about her, and I like the videos that Carol has of her. It let me hear her voice. That was, at least for me, the most intimate thing. I could really hear how she sounded. For whatever reason, I found that the most touching experience.

And I took flowers up to her this morning, so that she would have them on a day when so many people are thinking about her. I don't know that helps anything. But I liked being there. She's such a beautiful girl.

And she lives in both of our dreams, of course. I have woken up at night and sworn she was in the room.

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Bethesda, MD: This is a parent's absolute worst nightmare, realized. I pray that you can continue to live and love, and reflect your daughter's brillance within you.

Your courage is incredible.

Neely Tucker: Just posting this for Carol.

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Arlington, VA: Hi, Neely -

I read both articles, and I just wanted to say that I am amazed by the strength and courage that Carol has shown through the years. I have a five year old daughter, and couldn't comprehend how I would deal with something like that.

Reading the article reminded me of a video that my grandmother made of her life story a couple of years ago. She was 85 at the time, and outlived 3 husbands and her son, my father. In telling her life story, she was able to joke about her husbands (one died at 26, one in his 50s, and one in his 90s), but when she began to talk about my father, who died at 49 of cancer, it was entirely different. She still spoke of him in the present tense, it was the only point in the video that she teared up, and you could tell the pain was so raw, even ten years later. Reading your article helped me understand a little more what she must have gone through, and I plan on talking with her about it when I visit her next month. Thank you so much!

Neely Tucker: Glad you found the story helpful, and please give your grandmother our best.

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McLean, VA: Erika and her beautiful spirit will be remembered at the Potomac School forever.

Neely Tucker: Thank you so much. This means the world to Carol.

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Washington, DC: Earlier in this chat, you mentioned that Carol hates being told what she "should" do. When Carol encounters people who offer their condolences over the tragedy, what kind of sentiments did Carol take comfort in?

Neely Tucker: I think, like most people in that situation, she greatly values people just passing along their sympathies, and perhaps sharing a memory of Erika. Like any mom, she likes talking about her daughter, and hearing people talk about her.

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DC: You wrote that you have a daughter about the same age as Erika was. What does she understand about what happened? Very moving story, thank you for telling it.

Neely Tucker: My daughter is now 11, so we shared with her the basics of the event. No sense in trying to hide the obvious.

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Bellport, New York: I can't even imagine the depths of Carols pain after such a loss. Carol is the truest example of strength, courage and faith in the face of tragedy. God bless you both and your new family. The photos and story of Erika's short life are so beautiful. Thank you for sharing them.

Neely Tucker: Thanks so much. Glad you liked the pictures of Erika. It was great to see her smiling face out there.

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Neely Tucker: Well, argh. Out of time. So many really good questions I couldn't get to. Thank you all for coming, and many, many, many thanks to all of you for such kinds words and thoughts about Erika. It means so much to Carol.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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