Obituaries

Edgar Smith, 83; killer duped commentator William F. Buckley

Mr. Smith appeared on a television show with columnist William F. Buckley Jr. in New York in 1971.
John Lent/Associated Press/file
Mr. Smith appeared on a television show with columnist William F. Buckley Jr. in New York in 1971.

The final journey of Edgar H. Smith Jr., a killer who duped the conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. into helping him win his freedom from death row, most likely took him from a California prison hospital to the Pacific Ocean.

“We handle the bodies of several hundred prisoners a year,” a representative of the Evins Funeral Home in Modesto, Calif., said Sunday, adding that Mr. Smith was probably cremated and his ashes scattered into the sea.

Mr. Smith’s obituary on the funeral home website is sparse, saying he was born on Feb. 9, 1934. “He resided in Vacaville, California, worked as a truck driver and served in the US Armed Forces. Edgar passed away on March 20, 2017, at the age of 83.”

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Indeed, Mr. Smith “resided” in Vacaville, in a prison hospital. He had suffered from diabetes and heart disease for years. And, given his history, it is not unfair to assume that he suffered from being out of the limelight.

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Edgar Smith’s death, which had gone virtually unnoticed, was reported Sunday in The Washington Post.

On the night of March 4, 1957, Victoria Zielinski, 15, did not return to her home in Ramsey, N.J., after studying at the nearby house of a friend in neighboring Mahwah. The next morning, the police and Victoria’s parents found articles of the girl’s clothing and a bloody hank of hair on a road near a sand pit in Mahwah.

Just inside the sand pit, the searchers came upon a scene of horror. Victoria had been bludgeoned with a rock and baseball bat, resulting in “a total crushing of the skull,” as an autopsy report put it. The victim’s clothes were in disarray, though she had not been raped.

Mr. Smith, who had just turned 23 and lived in a small trailer in Mahwah with his wife and infant daughter, quickly came under suspicion. Blood was found in the car he had borrowed from a friend the night of the killing. The trousers and shoes he had worn that night, which were found later, were bloodstained.

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Taken into custody and questioned for hours without a lawyer present — this was nine years before the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling requiring that the police warn suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning — Mr. Smith confessed.

Yet at his trial, he testified that his admission was the result of coercion and exhaustion. He said he had picked up the girl and driven her to the sand pit, where they began to argue, and that he struck her, drawing blood. But he insisted that he left her alive, with a friend who drove up a few minutes later.

Mr. Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. While on death row, he took college courses and educated himself in the law, filing a string of appeals that resulted in numerous stays of execution. One of Mr. Smith’s filings showed the “consummate skill of a seasoned practitioner,” said the judge who had presided over the trial.

Mr. Smith wrote a book, “Brief Against Death,” published in 1968, in which he said he had been coerced into confessing. (He later wrote two more books, “Getting Out” and “A Reasonable Doubt,” a novel based loosely on his own case.)

By the time “Brief Against Death” came out as an alternate selection of the Literary Guild, Mr. Smith’s plight had attracted the attention of Buckley, founder of National Review, which Mr. Smith had begun reading in his cell. The two began a correspondence, and Buckley visited Mr. Smith at the former Trenton State Prison.

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In 1965, Buckley wrote an article for Esquire, citing what he thought were damning weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. He promoted a defense fund for Mr. Smith and helped enlist prominent Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams in Mr. Smith’s cause.

In 1968, the US Supreme Court ordered the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision to deny Mr. Smith a hearing on the validity of his confession. Finally, on May 14, 1971, a Third Circuit judge ruled after a hearing that the confession had indeed been coerced, and that the prisoner must be freed if prosecutors did not retry him.

Bergen County prosecutors concluded that, without the confession, they had a weak case. So on Dec. 6, 1971, Mr. Smith was allowed to plead no contest to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to the time he had served. He said in court that he had killed Victoria Zielinski — but after leaving the courthouse he declared that he had uttered the words only to put his long ordeal behind him.

Mr. Smith then appeared on Buckley’s “Firing Line” program, holding forth about criminal justice and prison reform.

After his 1971 appearance on “Firing Line,” Mr. Smith moved to California. He married and divorced a second time and drank heavily.

On Oct. 1, 1976, he abducted a 33-year-old San Diego woman and stabbed her as she struggled to escape his car. Bystanders noted the license plate number, leading the police to Mr. Smith’s apartment. By that time, Mr. Smith had fled to the East. But he decided to turn himself in, flying to Las Vegas, where he was arrested by FBI agents. Buckley helped arrange the surrender and later expressed regret at having championed Mr. Smith’s cause.

In a nonjury trial, Mr. Smith was convicted of attempted murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

During the trial, he admitted that he had, in fact, killed Victoria Zielinski. He said he struck her in the car after she resisted his advances, chased her when she ran away and hit her with the bat. Then, he said, “I picked up a very large rock and hit her on the head with it.”