Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Read an excerpt from Sarah Weinman's true-crime book about U.S. killer Edgar Smith, who was freed in the 70s in a "wrongful conviction in reverse" / BY Sarah Weinman / March 25th, 2022
Sarah Weinman, the “Crime Lady,” has struck again, and Scoundrel is a thrilling, detailed account of a sociopathic killer who hoodwinked William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the American neoconservative movement, and an intelligent, worldly book editor named Sophie Wilkins, into believing he was wrongfully convicted of murdering a 15-year-old teenager in Mahwah, N.J., in 1957. Edgar Smith was a cause célèbre for many reasons: He was a cold-blooded killer who protested his innocence even after he confessed to the crime; a convict who wrote a bestselling account of his case; a man freed after 14 years on death row; and, in a shocking denouement, a liar who tried to kill again, and spent the rest of his days behind bars until he died in 2017, at 83, of natural causes.
As Weinman writes in the introduction to her third true-crime opus: “His story, and the involvement of the many people who helped fashion it, complicates the larger narrative of incarcerated people who proclaim their innocence and of prisoners — on death row and elsewhere — exonerated and freed thanks to newly discovered or long-suppressed evidence. This book is, in effect, a story of a wrongful conviction in reverse.”
The New York-based author, who grew up in Ottawa, writes with heart and crackling prose about the women who were Smith’s victims, from Victoria Zielinski, 15, who was bludgeoned with a baseball bat because she thwarted his advances, to Lefteriya Lisa Ozbun, 33, whom he grabbed from a parking lot and almost stabbed to death in 1976 after he was turned down for a job. Weinman also details the inimitable way — namely, through flattery — the psychopath was able to deceive the women he wooed by letter from his prison cell in Trenton, N.J., including Wilkins, the book editor, an old high school flame who gets a pseudonym, and Juliette Scheinman, a former actress and legal secretary who fell under his spell.
In this excerpt from Chapter 26, “Freedom’s First Dawn,” Scheinman is by Smith’s side when he is released from prison in December 1971, after a plea deal where he admitted to Zielinski’s murder in return for his freedom. Incredibly, Scheinman, Buckley and Wilkins still believed Smith was innocent, with Buckley arguing, in a press conference following a taping of his interview show, Firing Line, that his good friend’s guilty plea was “a necessary ritual for the sake of the judicial pride of the State of New Jersey.” —Kim Honey
Freedom’s First Dawn
No one should have been more thrilled about Edgar Smith’s freedom than his girlfriend, Juliette Scheinman. He seemed far less excited about this monumental change than anyone else did, which made sense since he’d been preparing and waiting for it during the fourteen years and nine months he spent on death row at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. But Juliette felt unmoored and more worried than she expected. Their relationship so far had been watched and censored, surveilled and sequestered, endlessly constrained by her being on the outside and his being in prison.
She had been a faithful correspondent and visitor. She had attended many of his legal proceedings: a court hearing in May 1970; another the following year; and, of course, the fateful one in December 1971, with the plea deal that had secured his release from the Death House. But now her presence as the “mystery woman” and “New York City divorcee,” always at the inmate’s side, attracted the notice of reporters.
“I love Edgar,” she told the throng of newsmen just before the car ride to Manhattan. “I can’t wait to get over the bridge [to New York City] with him.” The reporters didn’t need to know that she had tried to break off her relationship with Edgar twice during that tumultuous year of 1971. That was in the past. They both realized they enjoyed life together better than apart. Over the bridge, the future beckoned, one where they would have to learn how to be a couple, totally free with each other.
Late the next morning, Juliette met Edgar in the lobby of the St. Regis hotel. He’d finally woken up around 11:00 a.m. First, Juliette took Edgar to Bloomingdale’s to get him some new clothes. He rushed from counter to counter, clowning around with the staff, a cold long cigar or a lit cigarette stuck in his mouth, much to the horror of the security guards trying to enforce the store’s no-smoking rule.
“I want one of everything,” he roared. “I’m like a kid at Christmas. But those prices—20 bucks for a sweater? I used to pay 10 before I went to jail.” He ended up buying a suede coat, a pair of brown pants, boots, several shirts, and a few pairs of socks. Just for fun, he tried on a fur hat. “Mister,” said a sales clerk, seeing how ridiculous it looked, “you wear that outside, and you’ll get arrested.”
“Oh, boy,” said Edgar, who began to laugh. “We wouldn’t want that.”
Juliette tried to justify the spending spree. “Edgar needs everything. He only has one suit. But Edgar, do you have to use up all my charge account?”
“Well,” teased Edgar, “I’m giving you a great Christmas present. Me.”
Then Juliette dropped the humor to the reporter following them around for a story. “He has been bottled up so long, gone through so much, he can’t keep still. He is in high key, but he will run down after a while. It will be very hard for him to be just plain Edgar Smith.” For now, Edgar was in the giddiest of spirits, and it gladdened Juliette’s heart. “Look at him. My God, I’m so happy to see him like this.”
Edgar and Juliette got into a cab. The driver, Louis Copperman, turned on the radio as he wended his way through Times Square traffic, catching an item about Edgar. “Take that fellow, I forget his name, that’s supposed to have killed that girl 15 years ago. Sentenced him to the chair, know what I mean? But didn’t kill him. All the time he says he didn’t kill her, but they won’t let him go. Now he says he killed her and out he goes, free as a bird. Maybe he killed her or maybe he didn’t, but they kept him dangling like a monkey on a string. Right?”
“Right,” said Smith from the back.
“Hell,” said Copperman, “they should have killed him or let him go. You agree?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Edgar said.
“Yeah . . . but you don’t know the whole story. The guy made one mistake. He should have pleaded guilty 15 years ago.”
Juliette began to giggle at that point and could not stop.
“Driver,” she said, “turn around. You’ve got a celebrity here.”
Copperman turned around. He looked at the trio but zeroed in on Edgar with his blue eyes and wide sideburns. “Yeah . . . you some kind of actor?”
“I’m the guy you were talking about,” said Edgar.
Copperman took the news in stride. “You don’t look like a guy who’s been in the Death House. They must have fed you steak. You look great.”
“It isn’t the steaks,” Edgar said. “It’s the New York air.”
“It’ll kill you,” said the driver. “You get out of the Death House, and this air will kill you. But say, how did you get mixed up in all this?”
Edgar brushed off the cabbie’s question.
Excerpted from Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman. Copyright © 2022 Sarah Weinman. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.