Columnist Helped Him Get Off Death Row. Then He Confessed

Edgar Smith got the support of William F. Buckley
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 25, 2017 4:18 PM CDT
Killer Who Famously Duped a Columnist Has Died
In this Dec. 7, 1971, file photo, Edgar H. Smith Jr., right, appears on a television show with columnist William F. Buckley Jr., left, in New York.   (John Lent)

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, has died in a California prison hospital. He was 83. Smith died March 20, the AP confirmed Monday. California 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 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 and describing the crime in detail. Buckley later expressed regret for supporting Smith. (Read more murder stories.)

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