A jury today declined to give Susan Smith the death penalty, sentencing her instead to life in prison for the drowning of her two small sons in the dark waters of John D. Long Lake last fall.
Smith closed her eyes in relief after the court clerk read the sentence, six days after the same jury found her guilty of first degree murder. Smith, 23, will be eligible for parole after 30 years.
"She was scared," said the Rev. Toni White, the chaplain who prayed with Smith behind closed doors before the verdict was announced. "She was shaking all over and very anxious. But she is relieved."
An excited gasp rose from the three rows reserved for Smith's family and friends when the verdict was read. Her mother, Linda Russell, was dry-eyed, as she had been for most of the trial. Beverly Russell, the stepfather who molested Smith at 15 and was intimate with her again weeks before the murders, cried hard from his seat on the side, isolated from the rest of the family.
But outside, on the courthouse steps, David Smith, Smith's former husband and the father of the two drowned boys, expressed his disappointment when asked if he thought justice had been done.
"Personally and on the part of my family, no," he said.
"I'll never forget what Susan has done and I'll never forget Michael and Alex. Me and my family of course are disappointed that the death penalty wasn't the verdict."
"We all felt like Susan was a really disturbed person," said juror Deborah Benvenuti. "And we all felt that giving her the death penalty wouldn't serve justice."
Sheriff Howard Wells, who coaxed a confession from Smith nine days after she reported that 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex had been abducted by a carjacker, studied her face as the sentence was pronounced.
"She was staring straight ahead," he said. "She closed her eyes and showed a great sense of relief."
Smith refused to testify in her own defense and chose not to read any statement to the court before being sentenced. As the lurid details of her life were spelled out during the trial -- her father's suicide, her molestation, her own botched attempts to kill herself, her adultery -- she seldom wept. She jiggled her foot incessantly and sometimes rocked gently back and forth. Her head was often bowed, her eyes averting the jury of nine men and three women.
"There is no good outcome to this case," defense attorney David Bruck said afterward, describing it as "the most awful, horrible tragedy from the beginning."
"She was very relieved for her mother and for the rest of her family because she knew . . . that the people she loved could not bear a death sentence," he said.
Earlier, Bruck had implored the jury to show mercy, saying in his closing argument that Smith had made a choice that night at John D. Long Lake, "and that choice will haunt her the rest of her life."
But in his closing, prosecutor Tommy Pope challenged the sincerity of Smith's remorse and the claim that she went to the lake intending to commit suicide and take her children with her, only to lose her nerve at the last minute and jump out of the car.
Why, Pope wondered, didn't she then try to save Michael and Alex, trapped in their car seats as their mother's burgundy Mazda sank, taking nearly six minutes to hit the muddy bottom 18 feet below.
"She wasn't even wet," Pope said.
"That is a horrible thing her stepfather did to her," Pope said of the relationship used by the defense to explain much of Smith's inner torment. "But Michael and Alex have nothing to do with what went on with Bev Russell."
Pope described Smith as selfish and manipulative, an actress who could turn tears off and on at will. "She looked every one of us in the eye and lied," he said, referring to Smith's tearful appeals on national television for the return of her sons during the massive nine-day search for the missing toddlers.
Fingering photographs of the boys, Pope tried to put the jurors in Susan Smith's car as it rolled down the boat ramp the night of Oct. 25, starting his sentences over and over with the words: "The car fills up with water . . . "
"Susan Smith struck at the heart of every deep fear a child has," Pope said. "When those boys rolled down that ramp, they went into darkness. If they were asleep, they weren't asleep after this, after that car hit the water. What did they see?
"They were probably crying," he said. "They knew it was dark. They knew they were scared. They knew they were alone . . . but their mother ran with her hands over her ears."
When Smith confessed to the killings last Nov. 3, angry crowds gathered outside the courthouse to jeer her. But the lust for vengeance seemed to temper with time as her dark secrets came to light, and there was no outcry when the verdict came in at 4:40 p.m.
Some of the spectators had lined up at 5:30 a.m. on the courthouse steps, eager to claim one of the 220 seats inside when court convened four hours later. Some, like great-grandmother Elizabeth Morris, had come faithfully each day, waiting in the punishing July sun.
"I just wanted to know the truth of it," Morris said.
Pope, defending his decision to seek the death penalty, said he would do the same thing again.
"This community can begin to heal," he said. "It's taken a tremendous toll . . . but it's something that had to be done."
David Smith said he too longs for healing. He said he's thinking about moving away from Union and all its memories.
"There are a lot of things I'd really rather not look at and have got to get away from," he said.
By the time Circuit Judge William Howard had formally sentenced Susan Vaughan Smith, the heat wave had finally broken and a storm was gathering. The cooling rain fell hard on Union County. CAPTION: Juror Deborah Benvenuti speaks to reporters. "We all felt like Susan was a really disturbed person," she said. CAPTION: Susan Smith is led from Union, S.C., courthouse after sentencing. CAPTION: Susan Smith's mother, right, leaves courthouse with unidentified woman.