'Scoundrel' examines how and why a convicted killer went free
In 1957, a 15-year-old white girl, Victoria Ann Zielinski, was brutally murdered by a white man named Edgar Smith. He was caught, rather quickly, and didn't officially confess to police, although he did say things like "it hit me really hard — I must have been the one who really did it."
This was no mastermind killer — a trope we love to love and hate in the United States. But this was a man in his early 20s who was married to a 19-year-old who had just birthed a baby, a man who kept getting fired from jobs he didn't seem to care much about anyway and a man who had learned as a teenager that he could get away with violence. Sarah Weinman's new book, Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free, covers the saga of Edgar Smith's rise to infamy, fame and infamy once more.
"This book is, in effect, a story of a wrongful conviction in reverse," Weinman writes in the introduction, referencing the most pivotal part of Smith's story: After being convicted of Zielinski's murder and sentenced to death, and after years on death row, Smith managed to not only get his death sentence commuted but walk free with time served. Several years after winning his freedom, another woman, Lefteriya Ozbun, who went by Lisa, was accosted by Smith, forced into his car at knifepoint and stabbed. She fought every step of the way, even after being stabbed, and managed to get free. Smith was eventually caught again and imprisoned for the rest of his life.
All of this information is in the book's introduction. The narrative's goal isn't to grip readers using a what-happens-next approach (after all, Smith has a Wikipedia page), but rather to explore how and why things happened the way they did — and who helped him become one of the most famous convicted murderers of his time.
The who is probably the most fascinating part of this story, especially the two central figures Weinman focuses on. The first is William F. Buckley Jr., a man who, as Weinman writes, would become "synonymous throughout the world with the word conservative" and whom readers might not expect to come to the aid of a man like Smith, locked up on death row in New Jersey. Smith read and praised the National Review (which Buckley founded), and because his access to it had been cut off, Buckley began a correspondence, promising Smith a lifetime subscription to the magazine. Soon enough, however, the two were dedicated pen pals and Buckley was working to have Smith interviewed for the National Review, helping him find new lawyers for the ongoing appeals of his sentence and conviction and putting his faith in Smith's professions of innocence.
Buckley also eventually put Smith in touch with Sophie Wilkins, an editor at Knopf, who began her own intense relationship with Smith while she was working with him on his manuscript, to be published as Brief Against Death, "which argued that the state of New Jersey's case against him was riddled with holes and [which] attempted, above all, to persuade the reader that he had not killed Vickie Zielinski." Wilkins' part of the story was perhaps the most moving, but also the most emotionally complicated, and summarizing it wouldn't do it justice, so I will leave readers to learn more about her in the book itself.
But why did Buckley become so committed to Smith that he introduced him to Wilkins in the first place? Why help with lawyers, their fees and the book that would make Smith famous? Weinman's answer is complex, of course, but might be boiled down to two major ideas: first, that Smith's talent as a writer was impressive enough to win him friends and admirers and, second, that he was incredibly manipulative, able to wear the face that would get him furthest with each person. To Buckley, he presented at first as a humble and innocent man whose writing was precise and somewhat old-fashioned. Later, to Wilkins, his writing began as intellectually engaging and turned flirty and later explicit and steamy.
Smith clearly was manipulative. He corresponded with many people during his time on death row and would leave prison with a girlfriend on the outside already waiting for him, as well as a great deal of supporters willing to give him a chance due to Buckley's endorsements. Indeed, the excerpts of his letters that appear in the book were convincing enough to sow doubt in my own mind at first, and I found myself being disturbingly drawn to him and his writing. This is, perhaps, precisely why Weinman does so little editorializing (although when she does, it's quite clear that she finds Smith loathsome), the better to let readers go through the same cycle that the victims of his manipulation (if not his violence) went through.
Yet it's not clear that Smith needed to be all that manipulative with Buckley, at least, who opened the door to so many others, because Buckley's worldview already disposed him to see criminals as an underclass. In his syndicated On the Right column in 1965, Buckley called Smith's fellow death row inmates "the wasteful class of humanity." Buckley's dehumanizing of incarcerated people in general was exactly what made him such an easy mark for someone like Smith, whose apparent intelligence and determination to educate himself on death row meant he was already exceeding Buckley's expectations of what someone in his position should be capable of. Weinman doesn't make quite this argument, but it's there to interpret in the often-paternalistic way Buckley wrote to, or about, his friend Smith.
Scoundrel is very much a hard-boiled true-crime narrative, detailed and careful. But although Weinman writes that it's Smith's victims who animate the narrative of the book — those recognized by the police as such, as well as the wives and girlfriends who were also subjected to his violence — it doesn't quite read that way. The book starts and ends with the perspectives of Smith's victims. But the crimes took place too long ago and too many of the people involved have died for Weinman to succeed in conveying a real sense of who all these women were, especially as they were ultimately only bit players in Smith's life, which was concerned, always, with Smith and only Smith. Still, it's clear that Weinman tried to breathe as much life into the women as she could, and the book certainly excels at being an in-depth exploration of how outside influence and support can affect the criminal justice system's slow-moving cogs, as well as the narrative of a con artist who managed to hurt a great deal of people.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.
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