One of the oddest stories to emerge from the 1960s, a period of many odd tales, is that of Edgar H. Smith, a convicted killer, and William F. Buckley, scion of conservative thought in America.
Smith had been convicted of killing Victoria Zielinski, a 15-year-old high school student, in 1957 in Bergen County, New Jersey. The evidence against him was strong. There seemed to be little doubt about his culpability.
Smith and his attorneys argued that his confession had been coerced. These were the days before the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling, which stated that police had to inform a suspect of his rights and had to offer the presence of an attorney while the suspect was being questioned. Smith said he had been questioned for hours without a break, and he confessed simply to end the ordeal.
The judge and the jury did not agree, and Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
While on death row, Smith took a number of college courses and learned enough about the law to file a string of appeals that resulted in delays in his execution. He eventually wrote a book, Brief Against Death, that was published in 1968 and that became a selection of the Literary Guild, a nationwide book club at the time. He also wrote to William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review magazine, a voice of conservatism, and said he had begun reading the magazine in his cell. Buckley took note of the letter and began a back-and-forth correspondence with Smith.
Buckley soon became more than Smith’s correspondent and pen-pal. He turned into an advocate. In 1965, Buckley wrote an article for Esquire magazine in which he outlined what he believed were the weaknesses in the prosecution’s case against Smith. He set up a defense fund and helped enlist prominent attorneys in Smith’s cause.
Smith’s case got back into the appeals court and in 1968 the Supreme Court ordered a review of his case by the Court of Appeals. In 1971 that court ruled that the confession had indeed been coerced and that Smith should be freed if prosecutors did not want to retry him.
Prosecutors concluded that they had a weak case against Smith without the confession. Smith was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to the time served. After leaving prison, he renounced his plea deal and said that he was not guilty of the murder.
Smith then appeared on Buckley’s Firing Line television program as an advocate for criminal justice and prison reform. Buckley said that he firmly believed in Smith’s innocence. His belief, however, was to have near-tragic results.
Smith moved to California, but five years later he was involved in the attempted murder of a woman. He fled, but eventually with Buckley’s assistance, he surrendered to police. He was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison. Buckley then expressed regret that he had backed Smith’s case so fervently.
After he was in the California jail, he finally confessed to murdering Victoria Zielinski in 1957, the crime for which he had been originally convicted. He spent the rest of his life in jail and died at the age of 83 in 2017.
Those who are familiar with the case and with Smith say that he was never able to show any true remorse for what he had done.
This case has come back to life because of a new book that has been recently published about the incident and about Buckley’s involvement with it. The book is titled Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Woman Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free. It is written by Sarah Weinman. It was recently reviewed in the New York Times, and you can read that review at this link.
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