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Burden of Proof

Five Years After the Death of her Two Grandchildren, Linda Russell Discusses Their Killer, Daughter Susan Smith

Aired April 11, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LINDA RUSSELL, SUSAN SMITH'S MOTHER: She went over the edge, and she lost it. I think it was the ultimate protection of what you love most in the world. That in your screwed up moment way of thinking you just give them to Jesus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: More than five years after the deaths of Michael and Alex Smith, their grandmother gives rare insight into the family of Susan Smith.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSSELL: She told me one time, she said, "Mama, being here -- being here is not what bothers me." She said, "If I could have Michael and Alex back here with me, then I could be perfectly happy for the rest of my life." So I guess her days are like ours, they're lonesome.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

In late 1994, the case of Susan Smith captured nation's attention. What started as a reported kidnapping tragically turned into a murder case. Now Smith's mother has authored a new book, "My Daughter Susan Smith." She sat down with BURDEN OF PROOF and described why Susan stayed with her husband, even though he had been unfaithful.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RUSSELL: She loved David. She wanted her home, she wanted -- she wanted her children to know their father. And she wanted them to have the relationship with their father that she never got to have with her own.

VAN SUSTEREN: Then...

RUSSELL: And that was important to Susan.

VAN SUSTEREN: Then how do you reconcile the fact that she killed her children so they never did get that relationship? How do you reconcile that in your mind?

RUSSELL: I think Susan was in such a state of despair, hopelessness, had David right on her all the time with threats of this and threats of that, and she was just carrying a heavy load on those young shoulders.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you answer the suggestion by some at the time that Susan wanted to get rid of her children because her new boyfriend didn't want children so that she could have a relationship with him. Is that -- how do you answer that?

RUSSELL: It's just not true. I -- I think Tom Finley that night was the straw that broke the camel's back. When she went to him and had to tell him some things that David knew, and all these threats David was making, and instead of Tom just reassuring Susan and telling her everything would be all right, he says, "Oh, this is sick. Just go on, I got to go to work." Then he goes and tells his friends how suicidal Susan was.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have you actually been to the site where those two children died?

RUSSELL: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: How come?

RUSSELL: I don't have any desire to.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you pass the anniversaries of their birthdays?

RUSSELL: I miss them every day, and it's not any worse on a birthday or an anniversary. I miss them every day, every day.

VAN SUSTEREN: How about Susan? Does she miss them?

RUSSELL: Oh, sure, birthdays and Christmas and all, you know, they're especially hard for her.

VAN SUSTEREN: How often do you see Susan now?

RUSSELL: Every other week.

VAN SUSTEREN: And how long do you get to see her when you go to see her?

RUSSELL: Oh, well, I can stay from 8:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon, but we usually stay about 11:30 to 3:00.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have contact visits or is there a glass plate between you?

RUSSELL: No, it's contact.

VAN SUSTEREN: What does she say about the kids? RUSSELL: Well, you know, we talk about -- we talk about them. We talk about remembrances, things they did. I mean, they were here. They were people.

VAN SUSTEREN: What does she remember about them?

RUSSELL: Everything about them.

VAN SUSTEREN: What does Susan -- what's Susan's life now in prison? what's it like? She told me one time, she said, "Mama, being here, being here is not what bothers me." She said, "If I could have Michael and Alex back here with me, then I could be perfectly happy for the rest of my life." So I guess her days are like ours, they're lonesome.

VAN SUSTEREN: What was Michael like?

RUSSELL: Michael was sort of laid back and -- he would size you up, size a stranger up. Alex was wide open, just wide open. Michael was sweet, both of them were.

VAN SUSTEREN: What else do you talk about with Susan when you go to see her?

RUSSELL: Well, we talk about other inmates and, you know, when you go somewhere, now for 5 1/2 years, you get to know other parents, other inmates. You get to know their children. It's almost like another whole family.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there someone to blame for this? for the deaths of your two grandchildren?

RUSSELL: Someone or something, no, I blame it on Susan's illness, honestly. I really do.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did she know what she was doing when she let that car go into the water?

RUSSELL: I can't imagine -- when she said in that note "that wasn't me," I mean if you're not you, how do you explain being something that's not you?

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you say it's not -- you say it's not you. Why do you say that it's not Susan?

RUSSELL: I know, I know how Susan loved Michael and Alex, I know.

VAN SUSTEREN: Then why did she kill them?

RUSSELL: Because she went over the edge, and she lost it. And to me, I think it was the ultimate protection of what you love most in the world. That in your screwed up moment way of thinking, you just give them to Jesus, the ultimate protection.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VAN SUSTEREN: Up next, why Susan's purchase of doughnuts and coffee had her mother curious from the beginning. Stay with us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHIRLEY STEPHENS, CO-AUTHOR, "MY DAUGHTER SUSAN SMITH": Before she went to the lake, she just drove around Union aimlessly, going from one place to another, and she hardly knew when she came to Highway 49. She's not really sure how she got there, if she were going to describe it herself. And she turned down John D. Long Lake and was hoping that that gate wouldn't be open, but it was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEHPENS: Going to the lake, she was crying so hard that she almost ran off the road, and she was talking to her children, and talking about how could everything have gone so bad in my life? and things like that, just -- just very, very upset.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: On the night Susan Smith reported her boy's missing, her mother noticed she and her husband dropped by the grocery store. Looking back, the purchase may have marked a sad right of passage in her family.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RUSSELL: Well, after we left McLeod's, and we all went to my house, and Susan and David were going to her house, and I -- she had to change clothes and do something, and they went by Winn-Dixie, and Susan bought doughnuts. Maybe there's nothing to it, but to me, looking back, if there's a death we don't buy doughnuts and coffee, and looking back it was almost like Susan knew there was a death, but it was so far removed.

Are you following what I'm trying to say? It was like somebody was dead, but she didn't really know who?

VAN SUSTEREN: In your book, you oftentimes have her saying I'm sorry to you or sorry to others. She's worried about what people think of her. Is that a fair -- am I right? is that in this book?

RUSSELL: Oh, Susan never did like -- she couldn't bear the thought of hurting anybody's feelings, or, you know, didn't want to ever hurt anybody.

VAN SUSTEREN: In the book in which there are -- there's much about David, her husband, you have things written such as this was -- this was in the chapter having to do with the prosecutor seeking the death penalty you said, "There David was on TV conning people into thinking he was a loving father and receiving all kinds of sympathy." Why the animosity towards David?

RUSSELL: Because David never was the loving father that he tried to portray himself to be and everybody thought he was. He didn't mistreat Michael and Alex, but he lived under the same roof with Alex from the time Alex was from birth to three weeks, and then he walked off and left them. And then they -- they got back together, I think, at the end of June and stayed together a couple of weeks. So, I mean, he was under the roof with Alex six weeks, maybe, out of his life.

Michael -- David -- to Michael, David had become somebody to stop by and played a little while and left. I mean, it wasn't like David was there. I don't even know that Alex knew he was his father. You know, he saw Walt Garner and Mitch and my son and Bev. He saw everybody more than he saw David.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you ever see David now?

RUSSELL: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have any contact with him?

RUSSELL: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you want to see him?

RUSSELL: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does Susan see him?

RUSSELL: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does Susan write him?

RUSSELL: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does Susan want any contact with him?

RUSSELL: Not that I know of. But, you know, I've said a lot of things about the way David has done and some of the things he's done, but, you know, Susan's never really said anything against David. I mean, she doesn't say anything about or against anybody.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have anything good to say about David? Is there anything that you think is particularly good about him?

RUSSELL: I think he's a good worker.

VAN SUSTEREN: Anything else?

RUSSELL: That's the only thing I've ever found good to say about David.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me talk about you for a second. What's this been like for you?

RUSSELL: Well, it obviously is such a loss. It's been a long grieving period, I'll say that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Can you get over it? Is it possible to recover from something like this?

RUSSELL: I don't think you ever get over anything. I think you get through it.

VAN SUSTEREN: What's been...

RUSSELL: You just have to have hope that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.

VAN SUSTEREN: There's been a horrible painful chronology: Susan's father committed suicide; you have the complicated relationship between Susan and her stepfather; you have the death of your children; the incarceration of your daughter for 30 year, almost got the death penalty. What's the worst? It all sounds so horrible. What's the worst of this?

RUSSELL: Well, the worst is the loss of Michael and Alex. I mean, can anything be any worse? But when you've gone through what we've all gone through, I think it makes you a little stronger because nothing any worse could ever happen.

VAN SUSTEREN: So where do you go from here? What do you do?

RUSSELL: I don't know. I -- this has been something that I've needed to do.

VAN SUSTEREN: You mean write the book?

RUSSELL: Not really write a book, but I know people have had so many questions. And I've had people in Union, lots of people, and they've told me that everywhere they've ever been, they've defended Susan, and that they have defended her from Florida to California to, you know, anywhere they've been. And I'd like for people to see them -- this Susan they thought they knew is not really the Susan it is.

VAN SUSTEREN: So what is the Susan we don't know. Who is the Susan we don't know.

RUSSELL: Susan is a gentle, loving, kind person that would take the coat off of her back and put it on you, and she'd stand there and freeze. And that's the truth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: When we come back, some closing thoughts. Stay with us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHENS: And many times, she's talked to her mother and she'll say, mama, I just don't know. I can't believe it happened. She said that so many times to her: I can't believe it happened. I'm not sure if she can answer why herself. (END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Linda Russell has rarely agreed to media interviews, mostly because she believes her family's most painful experiences were exploited by the press. Linda Russell's story is one of sorrow and of tragedy.

Thank you for joining us.

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