Edgar Smith (born 1934) is an American convicted murderer, who was once on Death Row for the 1957 murder of fifteen-year-old honor student and cheerleader Victoria Ann Zielinski. Vigorously contesting his conviction through the courts and in the media, Smith became a celebrity, and his case was argued in public most notably by William F. Buckley, Jr. Smith eventually succeeded in winning a retrial and negotiating a reduced sentence. Smith was released only to be incarcerated for a second time for the kidnapping and attempted murder of Lefteriya Ozbun in 1976.
In March 1957, 15-year-old Victoria Ann Zielinski of Ramsey, New Jersey, disappeared on her way home from a friend's house. One of the girl's shoes, a black penny loafer, was discovered the following morning on the side of Fardale Avenue, a residential side street close to the victim's home and to the home of her friend Barbara Nixon, with whom she was visiting the evening before. The discovery was made by Victoria's parents who had been driving around an approximate two mile radius from where their daughter had last been seen, searching for her. Mr. and Mrs. Zielinski also noticed a blood-matted head scarf in the vicinity. While Mr. Zielinski, the girl's father, continued searching on foot, Mrs. Zielinski went to the nearest residence and contacted the police. Mr. Zielinski, after observing a pair of gloves lying in the dirt of a sand pit located a few hundred yards away, just beyond the intersection of Fardale Avenue and Chapel Road, returned to his wife and together they waited for the police. The police arrived a short time later and along with the Mahwah Police Department's Captain Ed Wickham, the search resumed. Beyond the point where Fardale Avenue and Chapel Road intersect, there was a short dirt road leading into the gravel pit area. The two men noticed fresh tire tracks in the dirt as they searched for the missing teenager. Beyond the road's end, a large mound of earth was bulldozed into a 6- or 7-foot mound that formed a bank. Victoria Ann Zielinski's body was discovered on the north side of that bank.
The body lay face up in what Mr. Zielinski described as a "jackknifed position", the legs crossed over the torso so that her feet were furthest from the base of the mound of dirt. Victoria's face had been destroyed. There remained an unrecognizable bloody area (so unrecognizable that Mr. Zielinski later testified that when he discovered her body, his daughter was lying face down.) Most of Victoria's hair was missing. Her right eye was destroyed, her nose and cheek bones had multiple fractures and most of her teeth were loose in the remains of her mouth. From the neck down, the body had one notable injury: A bruise on the right breast later determined by the County Coroner to be the result of teeth marks. Her dungarees remained intact, fastened with a wide black leather belt. There were some deep scratches on her lower back, just above the belt clearly visible in the photographic evidence of record. Her Ramsey High School Jacket lay adjacent to her body. Her sweater was pulled up around the area of her neck and her brassiere pulled down near her waist. One strap of the brassiere was broken. The body had one thick white sock barely touching a foot; the other foot was bare. Her skull had been smashed by repeated blows with one or more large rocks. In addition, her brains were scattered "for seven or eight feet along the bank" according to Mr. Zielinski's testimony, and there was a "scuffled" area near the southern base of the mound where the weeds and brush looked recently disturbed. Above that area towards the mound's top, the victim's heart shaped silver locket, loafer, blood matted hair, and two large boulders covered with type "O" blood (Victoria's blood type) were found within an approximate 12 foot radius. Along with these pieces of evidence, there were many shoe prints in the area of the dirt mound's top.
It is a matter of public record that an enlargement of one of the crime scene photos, showing the remains of Victoria Zielinski's body was kept in front of the jury during the entire length of Edgar Smith's trial in May, 1957. The photograph's presence in the courtroom was objected to by defense counsel who cited its gruesome nature as "inflammatory". The objection was overruled by the presiding judge who quoted criminal case procedural law indicating that a piece of evidence could not be deemed objectionable solely because the evidence was offensive to view. The defense attempted to have the photograph removed by calling the photographer to the stand and questioning him about his knowledge of the use of the particular camera equipment with which he had photographed the crime scene. Additionally, representatives from the photography laboratory that had developed the picture were called and testified. The defense counselor contended that the color red was exaggerated in the enlargement and thus the photograph was not an accurate depiction of the crime scene. This attempt to have the evidence removed from the court room was dismissed when the photographer stated unequivocally that the crime scene as he had observed it on March 5, 1957 was identical for practical and legal purposes to what was shown in the state's exhibited enlargement of a photograph of Victoria Zielinski's body. The technician from the development laboratory opined that all hues were accurately depicted in terms of their saturation levels and that no exaggeration of red was present in the evidence.
Edgar Smith was at the time an unemployed mechanic. He stated that he knew both Victoria Zielinski and her 18-year old sister Mary and that he had given Victoria rides home in the months preceding the murder without incident.
On the night of the murder, Smith borrowed a friend's car, and his later activities aroused suspicion, including Smith excusing himself from meeting the same friend in a bar early in the evening, and his statement about having to remove his trousers, claiming he had been sick on them. When the murder was reported the following day on the radio, two of Smith's friends (one of them owned the vehicle Smith had borrowed the evening before) joked with him that the murderer's car was reported to be the same make as the one Smith had driven the previous evening and that the police were checking "all the Mercury vehicles in Bergen county". One of the friends later testified that Smith got "a startled look on his face". A day later, on March 6th 1957, a drop of blood was found on the driver's side of the car by the vehicle's owner, and Smith was brought in for questioning by the police.
During questioning, Smith repeatedly could not account for a half-hour gap during the night of the murder. He was also unable to account for his missing pants, which the police later located, heavily stained with type "O" blood (Smith's own blood was type "A", while Victoria Zielinski's was type "O"). The pair of pants were identified as belonging to Smith by his wife.
Faced with this evidence during questioning, Smith reportedly blurted out that Victoria had hit him in the face. He informed the police that he had picked Victoria up in his car, then attempted to grab her when she exited the vehicle which he had parked at the sand pit, her attempt to leave having angered him. Smith was arrested for the murder, and faced three psychiatric examinations before his trial.
The trial of Edgar Smith for first degree murder drew strong media attention, with Bergen County Prosecutor Guy W. Calissi describing the murder as the "most vicious, most brutal and the most sadistic I have ever seen." Witnesses included Myrna Zielinski, Victoria's younger sister. Although Myrna was to meet Vickie at 8:45 on the night of the murder, she testified that she did not see her sister after about 7:40. At approximately 7:30 that evening, at Victoria's request Myrna had walked her sister part of the way to the home of Barbara Nixon, Victoria's best friend. The houses were situated approximately four-fifths of a mile apart on Wyckoff Avenue in Ramsey Borough and the Township of Mahwah, respectively. At 7:40, approximately two-thirds of a mile south of the Zielinski home in the direction of Mahwah, Myrna testified that she last saw her sister when Victoria had continued walking the route to the Nixon home by herself and Myrna had returned home. Victoria had planned only a short visit at Barbara Nixon's residence, and because the girl said she felt uneasy about walking the dark road by herself, Myrna Zielinski agreed to walk back in the direction of the Nixon home in order to meet Victoria and walk part of the way back home with her. The two had pre-arranged to leave their starting points at 8:30 pm. When Myrna left her home a bit late, at about 8:40 pm, she walked the entire route to the Nixon house at an accelerated pace without encountering Victoria, who should logically have been walking in a northerly direction towards her on Wyckoff Avenue, which was virtually the only route between the two houses at the time. Myrna testified that she had arrived at the Nixon home and been told that Victoria had left for home about ten minutes earlier.
In fact the Nixon home sat at the northwest corner of Wyckoff and Fardale avenues, Mahwah, approximately four-fifths of a mile from the Zielinski dwelling, also located on Wyckoff Avenue. On the evening of March 4, 1957, Victoria's walk home was along the two-lane Wyckoff Avenue (see trial transcript testimony of Myrna Zielinski). This particular stretch of road in 1957 was residential, bordering on rural and heavily wooded on both sides in between sparsely placed homes. She had pre-arranged to meet her thirteen-year-old sister at a point about halfway between the Nixon and Zielinski homes, adjacent to West Crescent Avenue. In 1957, West Crescent Avenue intersected Wyckoff at the border between Mahwah township and Ramsey borough. Incidentally, it was at this intersection that Wyckoff Avenue became lit with street lights and a sidewalk was provided for pedestrians. Up to that juncture, Victoria would have had to walk along a very dark road (and virtually in the road).
Myrna Zielinski's testimony indicated that by coincidence, both sisters had left their starting points ten minutes late, at approximately 8:40 pm. It would later seem inexplicable to investigators that Victoria would have willingly entered Smith's vehicle knowing that her sister was on her way to meet her (this was especially compelling because it had been Victoria who had requested that Myrna make the journey, and such behavior was not consistent with Vickie's known character). It was also noted in the police report of the crime that Victoria's finger nails were "badly bitten". This was documented in the trial transcript (referred to as "ripped" by the Bergen County Coroner who performed an autopsy on the body) although its evidential value would prove elusive. However, there was an implication that Victoria did not habitually bite her fingernails and the fact that they were bitten signified that a period of angst had (immediately) preceded her murder, a factor that at least partially contradicts the logic behind Edgar Smith's eventual release from death row on appeal. In any case, they are mute evidence that Victoria Zielinski had realized that Smith's intent was at the very least malicious before he murdered her.
As stated elsewhere in this article, Smith eventually succeeded in overturning his conviction for first degree murder, accepting his conviction to the lesser charge of murder in the second degree. However, when all of the trial testimony and physical evidence is examined, all indicators show that the evidence at the murder scene is far too spread out in a physical sense to warrant a second degree murder conviction of the defendant. Premeditation is shown based on testimony corroborated by the physical evidence, that Smith had chased the girl several hundred yards, hit her with a baseball bat (obtained from the vehicle in a premeditated act), and then dragged her while she struggled, back to the murder scene, even pausing at one point to discard the bloody bat in a wooded area near the intersection of Chapel Road and Fardale Avenue. A logical conclusion of premeditation exists based on the significant time that elapsed (as suggested by the physical evidence at the scene) between the initial perpetration of an attack on Victoria and her actual murder.
On the witness stand, Myrna also identified several items of Victoria's clothing that she had been wearing when last seen. The trial transcript reveals that Myrna, who was thirteen when her sister was murdered, had a good memory for detail, recalling that Victoria had worn "boy's blue jeans", a coral cardigan sweater, a blue and gold campus jacket, penny loafers, a Wittenaur white gold wristwatch, and a silver heart locket on a long chain around her neck. Myrna remembered that Victoria had carried a natural leather purse, an accounting school book and a writing tablet. All of these items, with the possible exception of the wristwatch, were found in the vicinity of the crime and introduced into evidence at the Smith trial. Vickie's parents were called next, and recounted how they, together with Captain Ed Wickham of the Mahwah Police Department, had found their daughter's body just after 9 AM on the morning of March 5, 1957, in the area of a sandpit located about two miles from the Zielinski's residence.
Sixteen year old Barbara Nixon, at whose home Victoria had been visiting just before she disappeared, also testified, being the last person before Edgar Smith to see Victoria Zielinski alive. She also identified an item of clothing (a head scarf or kerchief found the next morning on Fardale Avenue approximately 500 yards from the crime scene) that she had lent to Victoria.
Detectives who interviewed Smith also testified about the missing articles of his clothing and his initial reasons for it (his explanations to his wife and others about their absence). They also testified about Smith's continual claims that Don Hommell, a friend of his, was the real killer.
Smith testified that Vickie had waved him to pull over, and then entered his car for conversation. Smith claimed that he had, at Vickie's suggestion, pulled into a dirt driveway leading to a local sand pit off Chapel Road exactly where Chapel Road intersected Fardale Avenue in Mahwah; that Vickie had stated that his wife was having an affair with "the oil man" or words to that nature and that he had angrily told Vickie to leave. Smith claimed that after Victoria left the vehicle he was driving, a 1950 light blue Mercury convertible that belonged to a friend, he had been sitting in the car (inside the sandpit area) for a few moments before "hearing a commotion" coming from the vicinity of Chapel Road. Realizing, he testified, that in the darkness he could make out at least two people approaching his car, he had grabbed a baseball bat from the back seat for "protection", fearing that Victoria's father had somehow arrived on the scene and that Victoria was walking together with him in Smith's direction. Testimony by members of the Mahwah and Ramsey police departments indicate that Smith's interrogation resulted in often contradictory replies. At one point, Smith said that he observed from his spot in the sandpit Donald Hommell of Ramsey's vehicle parked along Chapel Road. It was established, however, that this would have been impossible because of obstructions that made a clear view of Chapel Road from the sandpit impossible.
At the trial, on the witness stand, Smith stated that he soon realized that it was not Mr. Zielinski with Victoria; instead, he indicated that the male figure with Vickie was Donald Hommell, a friend of his, and that Vickie was bleeding from a cut on her head; he claimed that he asked Hommell what had happened and was told that Victoria had fallen on the roadway. Victoria, Smith said, pleaded with him not to leave her with Hommell and that he had acquiesced, helping the bleeding girl into the car where she sat with her head tilted back on the seat rest. Hommell, according to Smith, had not allowed him to take the cut and bleeding girl to a local hospital but had instead pulled her from the car and she had fallen out, spattering Smith's pants with blood in the process. He then testified that he had decided that since Victoria was "Hommell's girl" (a statement that was never verified to be in any way factual), he felt he should leave the scene and let Hommell take care of the situation; Hommell had, according to Smith, in fact encouraged him to leave. Smith stated that he drove away leaving the bleeding girl (even as she pleaded with him for succor) in the sand pit with Hommell; and that he did not come forward for fear that her death was his responsibility; that he originally believed that she had bled to death from the injury he had observed. Hommell was questioned, and he told the court that he was in the area at the time, and had "casually" been involved with Vickie. However, the police testified that both Hommell's car and clothing had been checked, and nothing had been found. Furthermore, the vehicle Hommell had been driving that night belonged to his employer, and was not one that Smith would have recognized.
As with other portions of Smith's testimony, the physical evidence collected by the police did not corroborate Smith's account. For example, the victim's type "O" blood stains were found inside the Mercury on the driver's side seat and floor. However, no blood stains were found on the car's passenger side, where Smith alleged Victoria had been seated with a bleeding wound to the head and pulled from the vehicle by Donald Hommell. Smith was found guilty by the jury after two and a half hours of deliberation.
Smith was sent to death row at New Jersey State Prison, where he spent 14 years. In 1962 his wife left him, and in 1964 he was forced to become his own lawyer because of his financial situation. He attacked Hommell's statement, and maintained that his own comments were inadmissible because he had not signed anything. He also examined the medical report, which had found estimating Vickie's time of death difficult. Smith's appeals, however, were repeatedly dismissed, but his death sentence was postponed on several occasions. In 1962, Smith began correspondence with William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review, during which Buckley began to doubt Smith's guilt, later stating that the case was "inherently implausible".
An article by Buckley in November 1965, published in Esquire, drew national media attention:
This brought renewed media interest in Hommell, scrutiny which was increased still further with the publishing of Smith's book Brief Against Death in 1968.
Release and life after prison
In 1971, Smith was successful with his 19th appeal against the fair nature of his trial, claiming that his confession was obtained under duress. As the confession was obtained eight years prior to the introduction of Miranda rights, Smith's appeal carried some weight. In 1971, Smith was able to have a repeat trial, and in June of that year Smith's confession was ruled to have been obtained unfairly, and Smith was offered parole if he accepted a charge of second degree murder under a deal approved by Judge Morris Pashman, an offer which he accepted. On December 6, 1971, he pleaded guilty to second degree murder, and he was released from prison at age 37.
Smith went on to lecture at a number of colleges and universities, as well as making several television and radio appearances. He published a third book, Getting Out, and argued for penal reform. However, as his celebrity status declined, Smith began drinking heavily and got himself into debt.
In San Diego, California, in October 1976, Smith drove his car up to 33-year-old Lefteriya Lisa Ozbun, and kidnapped her at knifepoint. Ozbun continually resisted Smith while he attempted to drive her away. Smith stabbed Ozbun in her side, and she was ejected from the car as he lost control and drove off the road. Smith recovered and drove away; however, a nearby witness made a note of the vehicle's registration, and it was later traced to Smith's new wife, Paige Dana Heimer. Smith immediately contacted Buckley, who turned him in to the FBI.
Smith's second crime drove media attention to Buckley, Smith's defenders, and the psychiatrists who cleared his return to public life. Buckley, famous as a law-and-order conservative, wrote a 1979 article about how he had been won over by Smith's claims of innocence, to his later regret.
Ozbun survived her wound and testified in the trial. Smith claimed to be an emotionally disturbed sex offender in pursuit of a shorter sentence. He cited his actions during the Vickie Zielinski case in support of this claim; instead he was found guilty of kidnapping with intent to rob, attempted murder, and sentenced to life.
In 1979, Smith sued for divorce with his second wife, and in 1988 and 1990 he sought further legal action against his sentencing. Smith appealed at every opportunity, but each was turned down. In February 2004, Smith postponed his own appeal hearing, and in recent years his health has deteriorated, and he has suffered several heart attacks.
In 1989, Smith was up for parole and this possibility sparked protests. Smith has been denied parole as late as April 2009. Smith is incarerated at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California.