The New York Times just published a review of a book about a prominent journalist embracing the cause of a convicted murderer, getting him released, and then regretting it. This time around, America is the setting.
The Journalist: William F. Buckley, Jr. was the most prominent conservative intellectual in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s. Buckley, who came from a wealthy and cosmopolitan background and who embodied the drawling East Coast patrician, edited National Review, the most influential American conservative magazine for decades. National Review still exists, and is (arguably) the most respectable conservative magazine in the U.S.
The Murderer: Edgar Smith, then 23, abducted and murdered a 15-year-old girl, Victoria Zielinksi, in Ramsey, New Jersey in 1957. Wikipedia has the stomach-turning details, which you may want to skip:
The county coroner later reported that most of Victoria’s hair was missing, along with the back of her skull. Her right eye was destroyed, her nose and cheekbones had multiple fractures and most of her teeth were loose in what remained of her mouth. From the neck down, the body had one notable injury: a bruise on the right breast, later determined by the Bergen County coroner to be consistent with teeth marks from a human bite…. Victoria’s skull had been smashed by repeated blows from two large rocks that were found stained with blood and human tissue near the girl’s body. In addition, her entire brain was scattered “for seven or eight feet along the bank,” according to Mr. Zielinski’s testimony.
Smith confessed and was convicted and sentenced to death. Later, he claimed innocence, and maintained that his confession had been obtained under pressure. He and his lawyers filed 19 appeals. Smith insisted “continual[ly]” that a friend of his, Don Hommell, had really committed the murder, and that Smith was pressured into confessing. (Remind you of anyone?)
In the early 1960s, while fighting his conviction from New Jersey’s death row, Smith began writing to Buckley, revealing that Smith, while on death row, had become an avid reader of Buckley’s National Review. They exchanged thousands of pages (!) of letters. In these letters, Smith revealed himself as a thoughtful guy, and embraced Buckley’s conservative views. In 1965, Buckley wrote a 12,000-word article in Esquire magazine entitled The Approaching End of Edgar H. Smith, Jr.. It was detailed critique of Smith’s trial. With Buckley’s moral support, Smith finally won his freedom in 1971. A book called “Murder in Jersey” describes what happened:
In 1971, on the nineteenth appeal of the Bergen County jury’s verdict and Judge Arthur J. O’Dea’s sentence of death—largely through Buckley’s well-meaning intervention and encouragement—a U.S. circuit court judge ordered the State of New Jersey to retry Edgar Smith for the murder of Victoria Zielinski.
No trial took place. Instead, by prearrangement, Smith appeared before Superior Court Judge Morris Pashman and confessed to the murder (as “something I had to do to get free,” he later wrote). The judge sentenced him to twenty-five to thirty years, gave him credit for the time already served, and suspended the remainder of his sentence, specifying four years and four months probation.
Buckley’s chauffeured limousine picked Smith up as he left Trenton State Prison and whisked him into New York City for be taping of two of Buckley’s “Firing Line” television shows.
Alas for Buckley, the Internet never forgets. Here are those programs:
Like all famous death-row inmates, Smith had been besieged by female admirers while behind bars. He married a 19-year-old admirer after being released from prison. Yet married life apparently didn’t suit him. Wikipedia:
Smith went on to lecture at a number of colleges and universities, as well as making several television and radio appearances. He published a third book, Getting Out, and argued for penal reform. As his celebrity status declined, Smith began drinking heavily and got into debt.
Five years later, in 1976, Smith abducted another woman:
In San Diego, California, in October 1976, Smith drove his car up to 33-year-old Lefteriya “Lisa” Ozbun, and kidnapped her at knifepoint. Ozbun resisted Smith while he attempted to drive her away. Smith stabbed Ozbun in her side, and she was ejected from the car as he lost control and drove off the road. Smith recovered and drove away. A nearby witness made a note of the vehicle’s registration, and it was later traced to Smith’s new wife, Paige Dana Heimer. Smith immediately contacted Buckley, who turned him in to the FBI.
During his trial for this crime, Smith admitted he had indeed murdered Zielinski in 1957:
Smith claimed to be an emotionally disturbed sex offender in pursuit of a shorter sentence. He cited his actions during the Zielinski murder in support of this claim, belatedly admitting to having killed the 15-year-old. This attempt failed, as Smith was found guilty of kidnapping with intent to rob, as well as attempted murder, and sentenced to life in prison.
Smith died in prison in 2017. In 1979, Buckley wrote a story ruing his naivete in supporting Smith.
The whole story has now been recounted in a new book by Sarah Weinman called “Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment and the Courts to Set Him Free” (that’s a mouthful). Katherine Dykstra of The New York Times recently reviewed the book here. This passage caught my eye:
…Weinman presents a possible reason for Buckley’s misplaced trust: “Humans are hard-wired to believe what other humans tell them.” But this is only half the truth. Humans are hard-wired to believe what they are told by other humans whom they perceive to be like themselves. Donald G. M. Coxe, a former National Review correspondent, admits as much: “We were taken in, I suspect, in part by our unwillingness to believe that anyone who loved NR could be a savage killer. (emphasis in original)
Now, I’m not going to compare Jens Söring to Edgar Smith. For one thing, Söring killed two people, whereas Smith only killed one (that we know of).
But the phrase highlighted in the original, “whom they perceive to be like themselves“, hits home. Many Americans and Germans feel an unspoken connection with Söring. He has the habitus, the mannerisms, the articulateness, and even, occasionally, the cautious tact of an upper-middle class German and a certain kind of upper-middle class American. You won’t find any blurry prison tattoos on him. He almost never uses profanity. He jogs and eats healthy. In fact, one of his most frequent complaints about prison life — one he comes back to over and over — was the lack of fresh, wholesome, well-prepared food. You could hardly think of a better way to evoke sympathy from the weekend-cooking-school/dinner-party set.
Söring also cultivated the sort of center-left political views endorsed by most German journalists. See, for instance, the infamous passage during his trial testimony in which he lectured the jury that he, Söring, could never have killed the Haysoms because, as a German who had to live with his country’s past crimes, he abhorred all violence. He even informed them that he personally opposed the death penalty, which is why he was so desperate to save his girlfriend from execution. What a guy!
Like so many opinion-mongers and essay-writers, Buckley desperately sought a despised and wronged underdog to champion; to have his own ‘J’accuse‘ moment. The icing on the cake with Söring and Smith is that they’re also interesting, intelligent people who are a pleasure to correspond with. Buckley made the rookie mistake of non-lawyers: As he researched Smith’s case, he ignored the damning evidence and looked only for flaws and inconsistencies. He found some, because there are flaws and inconsistencies in every criminal case, and the more obsessively you scan for them, the more of them you seem to uncover. There has never been an error-free criminal trial in human history, and there never will be. Half of what lawyers learn in law school is how to distinguish important errors from unimportant ones, and convincing evidence from irrelevant rabbit-trails.
Buckley couldn’t acknowledge the proof against Smith because he felt, he knew, that someone as clever and engaging as Smith could never have smashed a 15-year-old girl’s brains out: “No, no! never can it be! / Never, never can it be!” If you look at all the statements from Söring’s supporters, you will inevitably find a version of this argument: “He’s such a thoughtful, civilized, eloquent person. I just can’t imagine him brutally stabbing two people to death.” Neither, for that matter, could Derek and Nancy Haysom.
As Buckley found out to his chagrin, subjective personal impressions are meaningless in the grim, twisted world of sociopaths and killers. Criminal trials aren’t popularity contests, and you can’t tell whether a convicted killer is guilty or not just by looking him deeply in the eyes, debating politics with him, or reading his poetry. Keep this in mind the next time a writer, filmmaker, artist, or musician earnestly pleads for “Freedom” for Edgar, Jens, Keith, or whichever convict becomes the next cause célèbre.