Crime & Courts

Tommy Pope Recalls The Prosecution Of Susan Smith

Reflections on the original ‘Trial of the Century’ in South Carolina …

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Decades before Alex Murdaugh‘s double homicide trial captivated America, the trial of Susan Smith was the Palmetto State’s defining legal drama.

On October 25, 1994, Smith reported to police that a black man had carjacked her vehicle at gunpoint at a stoplight in downtown Union, South Carolina. Her two young sons – three-year-old Michael Smith and fourteen-month-old Alex Smith – were inside the car at the time of the alleged carjacking. For nine long days – with her husband David Smith standing by her side – the seemingly grief-stricken mother pleaded for the safe return of her boys.

“I wanna say to my babies that your momma loves you so much,” Smith told reporters at one press conference, fighting through tears. “You gotta be strong … I just know, I just feel in my heart that you’re okay. You’ve just gotta take care of each other.”

From the very beginning of the investigation, authorities questioned Smith’s story – which was riddled with inconsistencies. Eventually, she confessed to having strapped her children in the back seat of her burgundy Mazda and letting it roll into John D. Long Lake.

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Smith’s alleged motive for murdering her two young boys? Her desire to leave her husband for a wealthy man who had written her saying he could “see himself” with her – but that he didn’t “want children.”

Former 16th circuit solicitor Tommy Pope – the lead prosecutor during Smith’s murder trial – sat down with me recently to talk about everything that unfolded in the wake of Smith’s unthinkable actions.

Pope began his career as an agent with the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) before attending law school at the University of South Carolina. After graduation, he continued his career in public service working as a prosecutor before being elected solicitor at the age of thirty.

At the time Smith reported the alleged carjacking, Pope recalls being in the middle of a trial in which he was prosecuting a preacher who had embezzled funds from a local church. He said a SLED agent called him telling him Smith had admitted to rolling the car into the lake herself.

Pope immediately drove to Union County and was there when the car was pulled out of the lake with the two young boys inside — still strapped in their car seats.

Pope faced numerous challenges while prosecuting Smith – including the relationships within the small and tight-knit community of Union, South Carolina. The sheriff at the time was Smith’s godfather, and Pope recounted challenges during the trial with witnesses who typically would be favorable to the prosecution.

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“When we got to the courtroom, and I’m putting up what would normally be my witnesses like the sheriff, it’s tough when they’re favorable to the other side,” Pope recalled. “You know, they didn’t want me to seek the death penalty. David Smith (Susan’s husband) was the one that stood by me in that regard.”

When asked about his decision to seek the death penalty, Pope spoke candidly – saying he actually considers Smith’s prosecution unsuccessful because the jury ultimately chose not to sentence her to death.

Pope received a great deal of scrutiny from the public regarding this decision, but to him the decision was simple.

“I really felt that had there been the African-American carjacker, there would have been an outrage if I did not seek the death penalty,” he said. “If there had been David Smith, the father had taken the lives of the children, the same would have occurred. And so even knowing that in South Carolina, we rarely gave the death penalty to females. I just felt that whatever the maximum penalty was, I felt that she deserved that.”

As Smith’s upcoming parole hearing approaches, Pope reflects on the profound impact of the case, offering unique insights into the complexities, challenges, and enduring legacy of seeking justice in the heart of South Carolina.

To view the entire conversation, click here …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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