VACAVILLE, Calif. – Edgar Smith, a murder convict who got off New Jersey’s death row with the help of columnist William F. Buckley only to later confess to the crime, died in a California prison hospital. He was 83.
Smith died March 20, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told The Associated Press on Monday. The death was first reported by The Washington Post on Sunday. Prison officials told the newspaper that Smith had been suffering from diabetes and heart disease.
Smith, originally of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, spent 14 years on death row for the 1957 murder of 15-year-old Victoria Zielinski. He gained national attention while on death row for his writings, most notably the best-selling “Brief Against Death.”
Buckley, the conservative columnist and editor of National Review, became convinced Smith didn’t receive a fair trial and profiled him for a piece in Esquire magazine. He also helped him establish a defense fund to retain the lawyers who engineered a 1971 plea bargain that led to Smith’s release on parole for time served.
Over the next few years, Smith maintained his innocence. Buckley invited him to appear on his television program after his release, and Smith made speeches around the country about what he billed as his unjust treatment.
Then, in 1976, Smith abducted and stabbed a San Diego woman. He was arrested after he called Buckley, who told the FBI where he was hiding out in a Las Vegas hotel, The Associated Press reported at the time.
The following year, Smith was on trial in San Diego for attempted rape and attempted murder when he shocked the courtroom by confessing to killing Zielinski.
“For the first time in my life, I recognized that the devil I had been looking at the last 43 years was me. I recognized what I am, and I admitted it,” he told the judge.
He went on to describe the crime in detail.
Buckley later expressed regret for supporting Smith.
He wrote in his nationally syndicated column that he first became involved with Smith when he “became convinced that he had not been fairly tried and that he could not have committed the murder. … I believe now that he was guilty of the first crime.”
This story has been corrected to show Smith was on trial for attempted murder and attempted rape in San Diego, not murder and rape.