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Burden of Proof

Linda Russell, the Mother of Susan Smith, Relives Painful Events Surrounding the Deaths of her Two Grandsons

Aired April 5, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET



LINDA RUSSELL, SUSAN SMITH'S MOTHER: I don't think Susan did do anything. I think the illness Susan has was responsible, not Susan.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Personal tragedy under the watchful eye of a shocked nation: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, the mother of Susan Smith gives a rare interview and relives the painful events surrounding the deaths of her two grandsons, Michael and Alex.

Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

In late October in 1994, Union County 911 operators received a frantic call reporting the kidnapping of two small boys. The search for Michael and Alex Smith garnered worldwide attention. But nine days later, their mother, Susan Smith, made a stunning confession: 5 1/2 years later, Susan is in prison for their deaths, but the nation and her family are still coming to grips with the tragedy. The book, "My Daughter Susan Smith," chronicles Susan's life before and after the tragedy.

Recently, we sat down with Linda Russell, Susan's mother, and I asked her why she wrote the book now.


RUSSELL: We had to sit and listen to my daughter being called the murderous Susan Smith, the world's most notorious baby killer -- hurtful titles. And it was a way of maybe letting people know the Susan we know.

VAN SUSTEREN: And who is the Susan you know?

RUSSELL: She's -- Susan's a sweet, gentle, loving person, a good friend. You'd like to have her for your friend.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was she a good mother?

RUSSELL: Excellent mother. Not only did Susan love her children, her children loved Susan.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you know Susan loved her children?

RUSSELL: I know because I saw her with them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Take me back to her very early childhood. What was she like as a young child?

RUSSELL: How young?

VAN SUSTEREN: One, 2, 3, 4, 5 -- I mean, her early childhood.

RUSSELL: Well, at 1, she was spoiled; at 2 she was spoiled; at 3 she was spoiled.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did she have any problems as a child?

RUSSELL: Not really. She was just spoiled, had older brothers. And when she started kindergarten, it was like she grew up, you know?

VAN SUSTEREN: Tell me about her father.

RUSSELL: Well, we were -- we separated when Susan was 3, but I -- we weren't divorced until she was -- let's see, 3, 4, 5, 6, yes. So it was right after our divorce that he killed himself.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did the suicide of her father have any sort of lasting impact, as far as you could see, on her life?

RUSSELL: Obviously. I remember I took Susan to the funeral home, you know, and she saw her father in the coffin. And she didn't go to the funeral, she didn't go to the interment. And she asked me later, did they just throw dirt in her daddy's face? You know, that was her idea of burial, I guess.

VAN SUSTEREN: Linda, you write in your book about a rather complicated relationship that your daughter Susan had with her step father, your husband, Bev. What do you know about that relationship?

RUSSELL: Tell you the truth, very little. I know enough to know it should never have happened.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you know about the level of impropriety. I mean, how deep was this relationship?

RUSSELL: To me, what little I knew sounded childish -- just hugging and childish, like teenagers would do.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was it more than just hugging, though?

RUSSELL: I don't think so. And I've never -- I know there were two sexual encounters that did not involve intercourse, and those are in the book.

VAN SUSTEREN: Has Susan gotten over the relationship with her stepfather, do you think?

RUSSELL: I think so. VAN SUSTEREN: Have you forgiven Bev?

RUSSELL: Well, he asked for forgiveness. I mean...

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you give it?


VAN SUSTEREN: How come you divorced Bev?

RUSSELL: I think our marriage was so shattered it just couldn't be put back together.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why was it shattered?

RUSSELL: Why? Mainly because of that relationship.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have you ever been to the site...

RUSSELL: He didn't take care of what I treasured most in the world.

VAN SUSTEREN: Which was?

RUSSELL: My daughter.

VAN SUSTEREN: When did she meet David?

RUSSELL: I guess when she went to work at Winn-Dixie.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did she describe David to you before you met him?

RUSSELL: I had -- he had been to the house a time or two, so...

VAN SUSTEREN: How did you learn that she wanted to marry him?

RUSSELL: When she came in and said she was pregnant and that they were going to get married.

VAN SUSTEREN: And were you in agreement that that was a good idea, or did you think something else?

RUSSELL: I didn't have any choice. Susan was 18. Didn't matter what I thought.

VAN SUSTEREN: When do you think problems began in their marriage?

RUSSELL: I don't know. I guess right from the start. But if you notice in the book, here Susan was pregnant and David out telling everybody the only reason he married her was because she was pregnant.

VAN SUSTEREN: I want to talk about the night you learned that your two grandchildren were missing. Where were you when you first heard?

RUSSELL: I -- where was I? I was at Susan's house.

VAN SUSTEREN: Who told you?

RUSSELL: My brother.

VAN SUSTEREN: What was your first thought.

RUSSELL: Oh my God -- scared, you know?

VAN SUSTEREN: Did it ever cross your mind that Susan might have any involvement?


VAN SUSTEREN: What did you do after you heard?

RUSSELL: Well, I got to her as soon as I could.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where was she?

RUSSELL: At the McLeod's (ph) house across from John D. Long Lake.

VAN SUSTEREN: And when you walked in, what was she -- what -- can you describe her?

RUSSELL: She looked like a frightened doe. Her eyes were just wide open. I guess now, thinking about it, she's probably in shock.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did she say?

RUSSELL: I sat down and asked her if she was OK, and I said, "Oh, why didn't you lock your doors?

VAN SUSTEREN: Meaning the car doors?


VAN SUSTEREN: And what did she say?

RUSSELL: I know, Mom, I know.


VAN SUSTEREN: Up next: a painful discovery, how Linda Russell and her family found out about Susan's confession, on television.

Stay with us.


VAN SUSTEREN: On the night that Susan Smith's car went into the John D. Long Lake in Union, a sheriff's investigation was launched in the home where Susan Smith ran to report the children missing.

In our interview with Susan's mother, she recalled that evening in the tragic days to come.


RUSSELL: And we were in a stranger's house. Can you imagine being in a stranger's house? And I wanted them to get finished, so we could get out of that woman's house.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did the two of you ever sit down alone during those few days -- first few days and just talk, the two of you?

RUSSELL: You know, we didn't. But I didn't have any time alone with Susan.


RUSSELL: There were so many people around.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you ever suspect her?

RUSSELL: I didn't think -- I thought maybe the children were somewhere for whatever reasons, that maybe she had them hidden. But, no.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did you think when she said that the children had been kidnapped by a black man? What did you think?

RUSSELL: Well, I thought they had been kidnapped by a black man.

VAN SUSTEREN: When did you first learn that Susan had let that car go into the water?

RUSSELL: Where was I? In my den.

VAN SUSTEREN: How did you hear it?

RUSSELL: Well, we didn't watch TV. But they were supposed to have a live something with some black ministers, I think. And we had turned the TV on to watch that. And it just kept being postponed and postponed, and then, something came over that there had been some type of confession.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did you think when you heard that?

RUSSELL: I mean, some type of confession could have meant that the children were hidden.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you think it could mean death?

RUSSELL: Well, I was hoping it didn't.

VAN SUSTEREN: What was going on in the house when that came over the TV?

RUSSELL: Oh, well, everybody was upset, and everybody started -- I mean, we just didn't know what to think. We were crying.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where was David at the time?

RUSSELL: I don't know where he was.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you try to get in contact with Susan at that point?

RUSSELL: You know, it didn't cross my mind.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did cross your mind, then?

RUSSELL: I just -- I wanted the children. I wanted to know that they were all right.

VAN SUSTEREN: When did you first talk to Susan, after you learned she had killed her children?

RUSSELL: I think it was Saturday.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did you say to her?

RUSSELL: I don't remember.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did she say to you?

RUSSELL: I don't remember. I really don't. Had not even thought about it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Had you thought before you went to see her what you were going to say to her?

RUSSELL: No. I was -- knew I wanted to see her. I wanted to -- I wanted her to know I loved her.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why was that so important at that point?

RUSSELL: It -- she needed me. I know how I hurt. And I know how the rest of us hurt. But I also know how Susan hurt.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you think she did this?

RUSSELL: I don't think Susan did do anything. I think the illness Susan has was responsible, not Susan.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you think Susan has no responsibility in the deaths of her children?

RUSSELL: She was responsible. But I don't hold her responsible.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you mean by that?

RUSSELL: Because Susan's sick.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you think should have happened with Susan after these two deaths?

RUSSELL: I think she should have gone to a mental hospital. VAN SUSTEREN: Have you ever sat down with Susan, as her mother, and had a heart-to-heart talk about what happened?

RUSSELL: Not really.


RUSSELL: I think she probably has to relive that enough in her mind without sitting and reliving it to me.

VAN SUSTEREN: Has she ever said to you, "I did it." I mean, has there been such a blunt conversation?

RUSSELL: I mean, obviously, she was responsible. I mean -- do you think she's going to tell me somebody else was there?

VAN SUSTEREN: But in terms of sort of a heart-to-heart. I mean, has there been sort of a direct conversation about the topic, about what happened?

RUSSELL: Nothing other than she has told me, that it was so dark that she couldn't even see the lake. She didn't -- couldn't see anything but palm treetops.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did she tell you what was going through her mind before she did it?


VAN SUSTEREN: Did she tell you anything that she might have said, any conversations with the two children before she did it?


VAN SUSTEREN: Have you ever asked her about the details?


VAN SUSTEREN: What was the trial like?

RUSSELL: Well, only trial I've ever been to.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did Susan get a fair trial?

RUSSELL: I guess. I guess she must have gotten a fair trial. But I didn't think it should have been a death penalty trial.


RUSSELL: Because, if Susan had gone in your yard, picked up your children, that would be totally different, wouldn't it?

VAN SUSTEREN: Why is that different?

RUSSELL: Because it would take a mean person to go to your yard. And she's not mean. (END VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: When we come back: a preview of Part Two of our interview with Linda Russell. Stay with us.


VAN SUSTEREN: Join us tomorrow for part two of our interview with the mother of Susan Smith. Tomorrow: Susan's life behind bars.


RUSSELL: She told me one time -- she said, "Mama, 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 our days are like hours; they're lost.


VAN SUSTEREN: And we'll be back tomorrow with part two of our in-depth interview in another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We will see you then.



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