Why Did Eric Kill?
At 13, Smith was at the center of a media storm. His redheaded looks, and his age, were so completely at odds with his horrific crime that he almost got away with murder.
"That's one of the things that has frightened me most in this situation," says Prosecutor John Tunney. "Because I don't doubt for a second, never have doubted, that had he not been caught, Eric Smith would have killed again. And that's terrifying."
And Tunney says a decade behind bars hasn't changed that: "My fear of Eric Smith is not diminished."
In 1994, Smith was convicted of choking and battering the life out of 4-year-old Derrick Robie. A jury unanimously found Smith guilty of murder in the second degree.
Smith's parents, Ted and Tammy, were devastated by the verdict. They were convinced that their child was sick. He would be sentenced to the maximum sentence, nine years to life in prison.
Dale and Doreen Robie, the murdered boy's parents, cried with relief. But they didn't know that they were being sentenced, too.
"The hardest thing for me is when somebody asks me, 'How many children do you have,'" says Doreen Robie. "Most of the time I simply say, 'I have one boy, here at home. And I have one boy waiting in heaven for me.'"
Dalton Robie, 12, has grown up in the shadow of his brother's death. "All I really know is that I had a brother," he says. "Sometimes I just think about him and just start to cry."
This past June, Smith was up for parole, and the Robie family struggled to keep its fear in check. The hearing was held at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., a maximum security prison.
"Some people have said we need to forgive, but I can't yet," says Dale Robie, who is condemned to an agonizing wait, since the parole hearing is closed to the public.
The summer Derrick was murdered, in 1993, he was coming up fast on his fifth birthday. That's the first time Correspondent Dan Rather met the Robies.
Derrick was all boy -- all the time. He was also the unofficial mayor of Savona, a tiny village in western New York, with a population of 970.
"He sat on the corner on his bike and waved to cars that went by," recalls his mother, Doreen. "Everybody remembers him doing that."
Smith grew up just across town, and liked to spend time with his grandparents, Red and Edie Wilson. "He'd always come in and give us hugs and kisses," recalls Red Wilson. "He liked being a clown."
"He definitely wanted to be paid attention to," adds Edie Wilson.
But Smith's bright red hair and freckles made him a target at school for years. And as a teenager, he was seen pedaling around town for hours on end -- alone.
During the summer of '93, Smith attended a recreation program held a block from the Robie home. Derrick also attended the program.
On Aug. 2, Derrick was ready to head out to the program, but his mother wasn't ready to take him. "Normally, I would walk him to the end of the driveway, but Dalton that morning was very fussy," recalls Doreen Robie. "Derrick says, 'It's OK, mom. I'll go by myself.' … He gave me a kiss and I said, 'I love you,' and he says, 'I love you, Mom,' and he went hopping off the sidewalk."
He had only a block to go, and no streets to cross. The park was on a dead-end street. "It was the first time I've ever let him go anywhere alone," says Doreen Robie.
A short time later, as storm clouds moved in, Doreen says she felt something close to panic: "I swear that was the moment he died. I think he was letting us know."
"Derrick was very close to us," adds his father, Dale. "If there was any way he could have told us he was leaving, he would have tried."
What Doreen felt, but didn't yet know, was that five minutes after she kissed Derrick goodbye, he was dead. The most disturbing details of the crime, however, were never made public. But now, a decade later, with the fear that their son's killer could be set free, the Robie family wants the whole story to be told.
"People need to know what this kid did," says Doreen Robie.
On Aug. 2, 1993, Derrick's body was found in a small patch of woods, halfway between the park where he was headed, and his home.
"He chose to end Derrick Robie's life, and he chose to do it in a way that was much more than just killing," says Tunney, who vividly remembers the crime scene and the brutality of the murder.
Evidence showed that Derrick was lured from the sidewalk and strangled. But at the time, the killer's identity was unknown.
"He discovered and dug up one very large rock and one smaller rock. And he battered Derrick with those rocks," recalls lead investigator Charles Wood.
"He went into Derrick's lunch bag and he smashed a banana and took Derrick's Kool Aid, and he actually poured that Kool-Aid into the – that had been made by the large rocks. And he sodomized Derrick with a small stick that he had found."
According to Wood, the killer then arranged Derrick's body: "The left sneaker had been removed and was lying near Derrick's right hand. And his right sneaker had been removed and was lying near Derrick's left hand. It almost looked like the body had been posed in that position."
"Eric continued to deal with Derrick's body because he wanted to," says Tunney. "Because he chose to. And most frighteningly, because he enjoyed it."
The word "enjoy" would come up again and again in the course of the investigation. The first time was four days after the murder, when Smith walked into the police command center to see if he could be of help in solving the crime.
"[He] totally enjoyed it. Totally enjoyed it. Didn't want it to end," says investigator John Hibsch, who repeatedly talked with Smith, and had no idea the killer was sitting right in front of him. "He's looking right at me. He's very upbeat, very happy. He likes the fact that he's being talked to."
At first, Smith denied seeing Derrick. But then, he abruptly changed the story. "He says, 'Right across the street from the open field. And that's when I saw Derrick.' And when he said that, he about knocked me off the chair," recalls Hibsch. "He's putting him right on top of the crime scene. I mean, you've just got to walk across an open field. And you're at the scene where the murder was."
When Hibsch asked Smith what Derrick was wearing, Smith was able to describe Derrick's clothing and the fact that he had a lunch bag in his hand. "He said it was kind of cool, really," says Hibsch. "He's bouncing around again. He's happy and he's telling us something."
Hibsch says Smith started getting emotional when investigators asked Smith to tell them where he had last seen Derrick. "His voice started cracking. He put his head down," says Hibsch. "He brings his fists up and his fists were vibrating a little bit and he goes, 'You think I killed him, don't you?'"
Smith then asked to take a break and his father brought him a glass of Kool Aid. When Hibsch continues the discussion, he says that Smith "grabs the red Kool Aid and just throws it on the ground."
"Now we all knew that Derrick, the boy who was killed, had red Kool Aid spilled all over him," says Hibsch. "I'm thinking this kid has seen something that's very traumatic, and there's a block in there. And I can't get around it."
The next day, investigators asked Smith to get his bike and show them where he was when he saw Robie. Wood was there, and said that Smith was very calm: "I would have to say that he enjoyed it. He was having a good time."
But Smith's grandfather, Red Wilson, says the family knew Eric was hiding something: "In no way did we feel he had done it. So we felt that he knew something, maybe somebody had threatened him. That's why he wouldn't tell."
It's exactly what Smith's neighbors, John and Marlene Heskell, friends of the Smith family, also believed. After the murder, Smith spent nearly every night at their home.
"Eric asked me 'What would happen if it turned out to be a kid?' And I said, 'I seriously think they would need some psychiatric help.' Oh, OK, and he walked away," recalls Marlene Heskell. "And DNA testing. He wanted to know what that would show."
Gradually, details began to leak out about the crime, and Marlene's friend called with a new theory about the murder. "She said 'We think it's a kid and they don't like bananas,' because whoever killed Derrick had squashed the banana," says Marlene Heskell. "An adult would have just discarded the banana. They wouldn't have squashed it and made a mess."
Marlene Heskell launched her own investigation into the murder. "I went up to the store and I bought ice cream and nuts and syrup and bananas and I brought it home and asked everybody if they wanted sundaes. Well, they all did," says Marlene Heskell.
"Eric was going to have the nuts and syrup, but he didn't want banana. … 'No! I don't like bananas.' And I called Nancy and I said, 'Eric doesn't like bananas, and I'm scared.'"
Five days after he was killed, Derrick was buried in his baseball uniform. And just two days later, his killer confessed.
Family members sat Smith down and begged him to tell what he knew. But the truth was more terrible than they ever imagined. "It's still hard to believe," says Red Wilson, about his grandson. "Something must have happened to him. Because that wasn't my grandson."
A decade later, on June 8, 2004, Smith's parole hearing takes place behind closed doors.
The Robie family has already learned in the most brutal way that nothing can be taken for granted, so they sent a letter to the parole board, along with home video showing the short life of Derrick Robie.
"It upsets me that we have to beg for them to keep this killer behind bars," says Doreen. "My biggest worry is that I still have a 12-year-old. There's certainly enough things to worry about with an adolescent, other than the fact that there could be a killer running loose. I don't like to say that very often, because I don't want to scare Dalton. But that's the way I look at that."
The uncertainty also weighs on Tunney, the man who convicted Smith. Will the parole board see things differently than the jury? "In a lot of ways, it's like having the trial all over again – the uncertainty of the outcome," says Tunney.
At the heart of the trial, which took place in August 1994, was the haunting question: Why did Eric kill?
Tunney said, "The fact is, Eric chose to do something horrible."
But defense attorney Kevin Bradley said there was no choice. "Eric Smith suffers from a very serious mental disease," says Bradley. "The fact that he seemed normal afterwards shows he is not normal."
"At one point, he turned to me and he said he did it. I lost control," said Smith's mother, Tammy. "I asked him why, and why he did it. And he was just saying, 'I don't know. I don't know.' And he cried."
The jury heard that as a toddler, Smith threw temper tantrums and banged his head on the floor. He had speech problems, he was held back at school, and he was relentlessly bullied. When he asked for help with his anger, his adoptive father did not seem equipped to give it to him.
"He was really upset. He was crunching his fists and shaking and told me that 'Dad, I need help,'" said Ted Smith. "I said 'Hold it. When I got angry when I was your age, I just grabbed a bag in our barn and started beating on it until I was too tired to do anything else.'"
Then, Ted Smith said: "I heard a door shut, and I turned around and he was gone. And as I got to the window, he was coming back in the door and he was calm. And I looked down and I noticed his knuckles and his hands were kind of skinned up and bloody. I asked him what happened, and he said, 'I hit the tree a couple of times.' Seemed to be OK."
Defense psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Herman diagnosed Smith with intermittent explosive disorder, uncontrollable rage. "Literally deadly rage and anger," said Herman. "After the episodic rage, the child may appear to be normal."
But the prosecution's expert said it was a rare disorder that was rarely seen at Smith's age. Smith was subjected to extensive medical testing from specialists from both sides. They examined brain function, hormone levels and found nothing to explain his violent behavior.
But Dr. Herman still believed there was something wrong: "Something happened to his brain, but we can't measure it."
Smith's mother, Tammy, said she took a drug to control her epilepsy while she was pregnant with Eric. The drug, Tridione, can cause birth defects.
Herman says he's not suggesting that the drug would have caused Eric to be violent, but he does believe the drug caused Smith's ears to be low set and caused his developmental delays, which profoundly affected his self-esteem. He says Smith's pain and rage overwhelmed him.
"This stage of the trial is all 'Poor Eric.' Are there issues? Are there problems? Sure, but it doesn't regularly produce killers," said Tunney.
"Did he know when he was strangling Derrick, that he was strangling a child, a person? If he knew what he was doing was wrong, that he shouldn't have been doing it, then he can have every psychological, psychiatric problem in the world, and he's still responsible for what he did, under the law."
Plus, Tunney said that Smith knew full well that his actions were wrong because he admitted that he lured Derrick into the woods for the killing so no one could see.
But throughout his trial, Smith's face was eerily blank. He showed no emotion and expressed no remorse. "I don't ever recall him saying he was sorry that he killed the boy," said Ted Smith.
At the end of the trial, the ultimate question was left unanswered. Smith never did explain why he killed Derrick. But now, a decade later, Smith finally provides the answer.
Smith's new attorney, Susan Betzjitomir, is a mother of five and a former college professor. She graduated four years ago from Cornell Law School. Smith pays her $5 a month.
She believes that Smith should be released. "The issue isn't what kind of disturbed child was he then," says Betzjitomir. "The question now is what kind of young man is he now? Because that's the question the parole board faces."
She credits the enormous change she sees in Smith to the intensive counseling he received during the six years he was held at Brookwood Juvenile Detention Center. Smith was transferred to Clinton Correctional Facility, an adult prison, when he turned 21.
To demonstrate that he has changed, Betzjitomir allowed him to read a statement he prepared. But she did not permit him to answer any questions.
"I know my actions have caused a terrible loss in the Robie family. And for that, I am truly sorry," says Smith. "I've tried to think as much as possible what Derrick will never experience. His 16th birthday. Christmas, anytime. Owning his own house. Graduating. Going to college. Getting married. His first child. If I can go back in time, I would switch places with Derrick and endure all the pain I've caused him. If it meant that he would go on living. I'd switch places, but I can't."
Tunney's response? "I don't doubt that somewhere along the line, a light bulb has gone on. And all of a sudden, Eric has a better understanding of the enormity of what he did," says Tunney. "Does that mean he's now safe to be back among us? Of course not!"
Reflecting on his troubled childhood, Smith describes the intense pain he endured at the hands of bullies: "So after quite a few years of verbal abuse, and having been told that I'm nothing, I shut down my feelings. So I wouldn't feel the emotional pain, which made me vulnerable and weak. But the damage was done."
Smith adds: "I began to believe that I was nothing and a nobody. And my outlook on life was dark. I felt that when I went to school, I was going to hell because that's what it was for me."
Betzjitomir says Smith had no friends at school: "Nobody liked him."
At this point, Smith has come as close as he ever has to answering the question that has haunted so many people for so many years. Why did he do it? "However minor or major each abuse situation, it all adds up. Until it gets to the point where the individual cannot take anymore," says Smith.
"After a while, they may cope in a horrific way or take their emotional anger or rage out on someone who had done nothing to bring on such violence like Derrick. Not because they're evil or satanic little kids. It's because they want the abuse to stop. And it's the only way they know how to."
But Tunney points out that Smith had given the parole board a more chilling explanation for the killing. When asked if killing Robie gave him a good feeling, Smith said, in a transcript of the interview, "At the moment, it did, yes." When asked why he did it, Smith said, "Because instead of me being hurt, I was hurting someone else."
Smith then talks more about what he believes drives children to kill – and suggests that he was abused at home: "Although each case is different, there is always the underlying fact that the kids who did, who do these unthinkable crimes, endure years of abuse. Whether at school, at home, or both. I had issues at home. But I'm not going to talk about that."
Because of the sexual nature of his crime, the question of whether Smith was abused was repeatedly raised at trial, but repeatedly denied. However, there was testimony that Smith's older sister, Stacy, was sexually abused by their stepfather.
Still, there was absolutely no evidence that anyone had sexually abused Eric. In fact, a decade later, Smith himself told the parole board there was no abuse.
Smith has made the case that he is uniquely qualified to counsel bullied children, and one day sees himself as a forensic psychologist, doing research on children who kill. "You may think I'm a threat to the well-being of society," says Smith. "And I can understand why you would feel that way. The fact is that I'm not. I'd be an asset to society."
"I think society might be safer if he were allowed out to do that kind of research," adds his attorney. "Because nothing will change what happened to Derrick. But maybe something can prevent what might happen to someone else's child."
Tunney, however, disagrees: "Let's assume he's not a threat anymore. OK. Should we release him? There's a lot more to talk about. That is, has he been punished enough?"
The Robie family and the Smith family have not exchanged a single word over the years. But they have found themselves face to face.
Dale Robie says he can't leave Savona. "I live on Robie Road," he says. "And it's all family up through there. And without that support, I think it would have been harder to be away – especially raising Dalton."
A few months after the murder, the Robie family did move to a new house in Savona, one that didn't have so many memories, especially for Dalton, who's now a straight A student.
To honor Derrick, volunteers bulldozed the scene of the crime, and put in a new ball field – in memory of the little T-ball player.
"A lot of people don't understand. They say that maybe we should just move on, which we have. We move on," says Doreen Robie. "But, as life evolves, we also carry with us this huge burden of making sure that people don't forget him."
But most crucial to the Robie family is that the parole board doesn't forget Derrick, either, and allow his killer to walk out the door.
After an agonizing wait, the parole board has reached a decision. Smith's request for release was denied.
Now, the Robies want to give families like theirs more time to heal before facing the anguish of parole. They fought to pass Penny's Law, which lengthens the prison sentence for children who kill.
"Supporting Penny's Law was a proud moment," says Dale Robie, who sees this as Derrick's triumph. "It gave us a little meaning, more meaning. …He was here for a short time. But now look at the impact his five years have had."
Had he lived, Derrick Robie would now be 16. Eric Smith will be up for parole again in 18 months. His case will be reviewed every two years.
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