The Great Prevaricator

Oct 9, 2009 - by - 1 Comment

Edgar Smith

Edgar Smith

Edgar Smith, with William F. Buckley Jr. blithely playing his stooge, wrote his way to freedom from the Death House in Trenton State Prison in 1971, becoming the most famous death-row prisoner of his time. Fourteen and-a-half years earlier, Smith -- at age 23 -- had bludgeoned to death 15-year-old Vickie Zielinski in Mahwah, N.J. Less than five years after his release from prison, Smith kidnapped a petite but scrappy young mother who miraculously managed to escape from Smith's car with a knife stuck in her side.

by Lona Manning

Sixty-nine year-old Edgar Smith lives an anonymous existence as one of almost 160,000 inmates in the California penal system. At one time, however, he was the most famous prisoner in the United States. His story begins on the other side of the country and almost half a century ago, in the peaceful town of Mahwah, N.J. In 1957, Smith was sentenced to die in the electric chair for the murder of Vickie Zielinski, a pretty young cheerleader whose savagely bludgeoned body was found in a sandpit. The crime and the trial drew national attention. Smith claimed he was innocent and named another man as the killer, but he was found guilty and sent to the Death House in Trenton State Prison. From his prison cell, Smith managed to stave off execution with a series of appeals, and even wrote a book giving his version of the case. He began to correspond with columnist William F. Buckley Jr., who helped him overturn his conviction and negotiate a plea bargain instead of a second trial. At the time of his release in December 1971, he was the longest-serving prisoner on death row in the United States. 

Smith's successful transition to the world outside the 20-foot walls of Trenton State Prison lasted only as long as his fame. By 1976 he was in California, broke and drinking too much. That's when a woman named Lefteriya Ozbun discovered the real Edgar Smith, and miraculously lived to tell about it.

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