In December 1971, 37-year-old Edgar Smith was released from New Jersey’s death row. Convicted of the first-degree murder of a teenage girl in 1957, Smith, with the help of journalist and editorial magazine National Review founder William Buckley, convinced the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeal that his confession to the crime was coerced by police. With the confession thrown out, trying Smith again for murder was a risky move and a plea deal was reached with Edgar Smith pleading no contest to second-degree murder and being released for time served.
Edgar Smith had spent his time behind bars learning the law to support his own appeals, maintaining his innocence in the murder he was convicted of carrying out. He published two books on his case, as well as a novel, and after his release was supported by Buckley who was convinced of his innocence, to tell his story and publicly discuss the problems within the American criminal justice system.
This is not a story, however, of an innocent man wrongly convicted who then dedicated his life to changing the justice system for the better. It is a story of a manipulative and calculating killer who enjoyed being able to dupe people, for Edgar Smith not only carried out another brutal attack on a woman just five years after his release, but confessed during the following trial for attempted murder that he was guilty of the murder of 15-year-old Victoria Zielinski.
Those who have committed heinous crimes such as a murder are a source of fascination for many and disgust and horror for others. An interest in the criminal mind does not mean an acceptance, understanding or approval of the shocking crimes that have been carried out, but a curiosity in human psychology and the differences between us all in how with think, behave and act.
William Buckley was a successful author and commentator who had founded the National Review magazine in 1955, writing and editing pieces focusing on political, social, and cultural affairs. He is not the first journalist to become interested in the case of a killer to the extent of pursuing active communication and prison visits with them.
Martha Elliot, a Connecticut news editor, found herself developing a bizarre yet compelling friendship with serial killer Michael Ross in which she actively campaigned for his life trying to prevent him walking into the death chamber. Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Claudia Rowe, who wrote ‘The Spider and The Fly’ had an equally disturbing experience with serial killer Kendall Francois, a killer who demanded personal information from her before he would engage and divulge any information about himself and his abhorrent crimes. (Covered here in Episode 90 of Sword & Scale)
The problem both of these women faced was whether or not to believe Michael Ross and Kendall Francois and what was the best and safest way to communicate with them. They were faced with trying to decipher if they were simply being manipulated by a psychopath with nothing else to do and whether faith these killers and their words, were simply feeding their desire to be heard and giving them a direct path to the outside world with control over their story. In contrast, William Buckley quickly developed a friendship with Edgar Smith and believed in his innocence. Once the truth was revealed, he had to endure a public disclosure that he had been duped by a killer and his belief in his innocence, the case he had written about and promoted on his own TV show, was in fact false.
Detailed in State V Smith in June 1958, on 4 March 1957, 15-year-old Victoria Zielinski visited her friend’s house a short walk from her own home in Bergen County, New Jersey. Due to meet her younger sister at 8.30 pm that evening to walk home together, she failed to appear. Her sister raised the alarm with their parents and the evening was spent tracing the route between the two houses trying to find any indication of what had happened to her and where she had gone. Her parents found one of their daughter’s shoes and a blood-stained head scarf in a side street, prompting them to contact the police.
The battered body of Victoria Zielinski was found in a sand pit area at the end of a dirt track. Her face had been severely beaten, making her unrecognizable. She had hair missing from the back of her head, marks on her right breast, which was exposed, and scratches to her lower back. Two blood spattered rocks were found nearby and examination of her body revealed along with the two rocks she had also been beaten with a baseball bat.
Edgar Smith was 23-years-old at the time of the murder and became a person of interest to the police after a report from his friend. Smith had borrowed his friend’s Mercury that evening, the same make of car witnesses had seen near the site of the murder. When his friend examined his car the next morning, he found what he thought were blood-stains and contacted police. His friend also informed police that Edgar Smith had changed his trousers that night, telling him he had been sick and had been forced to throw them away. In initial questioning by police, Smith confirmed he knew Victoria from the area but denied any knowledge or involvement in her murder.
When police found his missing trousers covered in blood which matched the blood type of Victoria Zielinski, he changed his story. He told police he had given her a lift that night and parked near the sand pit area where her body was found. She had tried to leave the car he said and he had grabbed her to keep her from leaving. Police charged Edgar Smith with first-degree murder.
By the time his case came to trial later that year, Smith claimed his confession was false and had been coerced by police when he was exhausted and scared. His defence failed and he was convicted and sentenced to death, being taken to New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison to start his sentence.
By 1968, Edgar Smith had published his first book from prison, “Brief Against Death”. It was a book that protested his innocence in the 1957 murder of Victoria Zielinski and attacked the justice system for its failings and practices in sending people to the execution chamber. It was writing that caught the attention of William Buckley. After a number of visits to the prison, Buckley felt Smith was indeed innocent and wanted to help him with his case. He provided publicity and support for Smith, aided in finding funds for defence attorneys to argue his case based on his original defence; that his confession to murder, the most damning evidence against him, was unreliable.
In May 1971, the ruling came through from the The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that his confession had been coerced meaning it could not be used in prosecution evidence against him. Prosecutors could either send Edgar Smith back to court for a re-trial without the confession evidence or free him. They opted for a charge of second-degree murder giving Edgar Smith opportunity to escape the death penalty and be released from prison based on the 14 years he had already served. Smith pleaded no contest, neither admitting guilt nor innocence as a bargain to achieve his release, something that was unlikely to have come about without the support of William Buckley.
In 1976, five years after he was released from prison he abducted and attacked Lefteriya Ozbun, a 33-year-old woman from San Diego. After giving her a lift in his car, he stabbed her as she tried to escape him, leaving her with serious injuries. Witnesses were able to tell police the licence plate number of the car leading them straight to Smith. Hiding out in a motel in Las Vegas, Smith contacted Buckley who informed police of his whereabouts.
Edgar Smith went on trial for attempted rape and attempted murder with his victim testifying against him leaving no doubt he was the perpetrator. In the no jury trial, the now 42-year-old was found guilty by the judge and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. “For the first time in my life, I recognized that the devil I had been looking at in the mirror for 43 years was me,” he told the court, before admitting he had killed Victoria Zielinski 19 years earlier and his original conviction for murder was correct.
The New York Post published in 2009 the threat of Edgar Smith achieving parole and once again being released from prison. “Despite his age and record, he remains a threat. He needs to remain behind bars” they said, highlighting the thoughts of San Diego’s District Attorney who described Edgar Smith as a “kind of like Hannibal Lecter — only he doesn’t eat his victims.”
Edgar Smith did not achieve parole and after years of heart problems and diabetes he died on 20 March 2017 in a California prison hospital at 83-years-old. William Buckley, the man who was fooled by Smith, responded to former assistant prosecutor Edward Fitzpatrick in the Prescott Newspaper in 1977 just after Smiths admission of guilt for the 1957 murder. Buckley highlighted weaknesses in the first degree murder charge against Smith and that his own conclusions had changed before Smith’s confession, “I believe now that Smith was guilty of the first crime” he wrote in 1976. “Edgar Smith has done quite enough damage in his lifetime without underwriting the doctrine that the verdict of a court is infallible.”