Mr. Smith once seemed destined for the electric chair for that killing, which New Jersey detectives described as one of the most horrible they had ever seen.
On the night of March 4 of that year, Victoria Zielinski, who was 15, did not return to her home in Ramsey, N.J., after studying at the house of a friend in neighboring Mahwah. The next morning, the police and Victoria’s parents found articles of the girl’s clothing and a bloody hank of hair on a road near a sand pit in Mahwah.
Just inside the sand pit, the searchers came upon Victoria’s body. She had been bludgeoned with a rock and a baseball bat, resulting in “a total crushing of the skull,” as an autopsy report put it. Her clothes were in disarray, though she had not been raped.
Mr. Smith, who had just turned 23 and lived in a trailer in Mahwah with his wife and infant daughter, came under suspicion. Blood was found in the car he had borrowed from a friend the night of the killing. The trousers and shoes he had worn that night, which were found later, were bloodstained.
Taken into custody and questioned for hours without a lawyer present, Mr. Smith confessed. This was nine years before the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling requiring that the police warn suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning.
At his trial, he testified that his confession had resulted from coercion and exhaustion. He said he had picked up the girl and driven her to the sand pit, where they began to argue, and that he struck her, drawing blood. But he insisted that he had left her alive, with a friend who had driven up a few minutes later.
Mr. Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. While on death row, he took college courses and educated himself in the law, filing a string of appeals that resulted in numerous stays of execution.
Mr. Smith wrote a book, “Brief Against Death,” published in 1968, in which he again said he had been coerced into confessing. (He later wrote two more books, “Getting Out” and “A Reasonable Doubt,” a novel based loosely on his case.)
By the time “Brief Against Death” came out as an alternate selection of the Literary Guild, Mr. Smith’s plight had…