A Curious Obituary
by John Delach
A curious obituary appeared in the Monday, September 25, 2017 edition of The New York Times. This obit ran practically a full page and it was the only one in that paper. Only one obituary on a Monday; unusual for sure. In the normal course of events, Monday’s Times repeats the obituaries for notables and celebrities who died on Friday and Saturday. Nobody (except a few news hounds like me) reads The Times on Saturday. So be it, Saturday deaths get swallowed in the maze of Sunday sections. The Times considers it the duty of the Monday’s paper to reissue important obituaries so that important deaths will not go unrecognized. Curiously, not this Monday; perhaps it was a slow weekend for recognizable deaths?
This unusual obituary concerned itself with the life and death of a loser, a man named Edgar Smith who not many people will recall or remember. A third oddity is personal, I knew immediately who Mr. Smith was. You probably do not but the obituary’s headline may help: Edgar Smith, an Infamous Killer Who Duped a Conservative Wit, Dies at 83.
That “Conservative Wit” was William F. Buckley (WFB) who came to the defense of Smith in 1965 when Smith was a resident of New Jersey’s death row fending off his execution dates for the 1957 murder of Victoria (Vicki) Zielinski. Ms. Zielinski, fifteen at the time of her murder, was a resident of Ramsey, NJ. Smith confessed to killing Ms. Zielinski when she resisted his advances. The Times Obituary noted: “Taken into custody and questioned for hours without a lawyer present – this was years before the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling requiring the police warn suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning – Mr. Smith confessed.”
The jury found Edgar Smith guilty and sentenced him to death. Following his conviction for first degree murder, Smith set out to educate himself about the law leading to a, “string of appeals that resulted in numerous stays of execution.” The Times noted: “One of Mr. Smith’s filings showed the ‘consummate skill of a seasoned practitioner,’ said the judge who presided at his trial.”
Smith also wrote a book about his conviction, “Brief Against Death,” that the Literary Guild, a book club, made an alternate selection. Coincidentally, I was a Literary Guild subscriber in the mid-1960s and I selected his book. Smith made his case for a re-trial to me and I came to believe that he was a victim of a rush to judgement, shoddy tactics and wrongful procedures by police and prosecutors. I also discovered I was not alone. WFB took up his cause and in 1965, wrote a piece for Esquire making the case that Smith had been wrongly convicted and was deserving of a new trial. He enlisted Edward Bennett Williams, the prominent DC attorney to take up Smith’s case. David Stout reported in The Times obituary what then occurred:
In 1968, the United States Supreme Court ordered the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to reconsider its decision to deny Mr. Smith a hearing that the confession was coerced and that the prisoner must be freed if prosecutors did not retry him.
On May 14, 1971, the Third Circuit so ruled. Without a confession, the Bergen County prosecutors knew they were in trouble so they offered Smith a deal; plead no contest to the lesser charge of second degree murder in return for a sentence of time already served. Smith pleaded accordingly on December 6, 1971.
When I read the news that Smith accepted this plea deal I thought to myself that this was wrong. I couldn’t understand why he took the easy way out. He had so eloquently proclaimed his innocence and so many high-powered individuals had gone to bat for him. It seemed to me that he owed it to them, but most importantly to himself, to clear his name. Granted, he had been on death row longer than any other person in the US penal system up until that time and granted, I was a kid of 21 who saw things in black and white with few shades of grey. But I just couldn’t understand how he could accept the stain of having to live with a permanent guilty plea for murder and not fight the last fight to free his name. Of course, it never occurred to me that he was guilty all along.
Smith faded from the spotlight, moved to California, married and divorced. On October 1, 1976, he abducted a 33-year-old San Diego woman. He stabbed her as she escaped from his car, stabbed her close to her heart, but she survived. Arrested and tried, he admitted during his trial that he had killed Ms. Zielinski. She too escaped from his car back in 1957 but he caught up to her in a stone quarry. “I picked up a very large rock and hit her on the head with it.” California sentenced him to life in prison for attempted murder and other crimes.
A sociopath, grifter and a con man, he bamboozled WFB, Bennett Williams and ordinary citizens like me. He died unnoticed on May 20, 2017. The Washington Post first published his obituary on September 24th without noting how they discovered he had died. His ashes were scattered into the sea.