The Case of Eric Smith
Eric Smith was 13 years old in 1993 when he brutally murdered 4 year-old Derrick Robie. The nature of the crime was horrific, which included battering Robie with rocks and sodomizing him with a fallen tree branch. Smith’s continued and strangely joyful involvement in the investigation eventually led him to confess to the murder. Smith pleaded insanity in an attempt to get psychiatric help rather than punishment. Prosecutor John Tunney was certain that Smith would kill again if given the opportunity, and he had plenty of evidence on his side. First, Smith spent a great deal of time brutalizing Robie’s body after strangling him. In addition, the prosecutor and investigators showed that Smith derived a great deal of enjoyment from both the murder and his participation in the ensuing investigation. Smith was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced nine years to life in prison. Smith’s brutality and lack of remorse led the court to give him the maximum sentence available at that time (it has since been increased to 15 years to life). Smith is still behind bars as his four applications for parole have been denied. He will be eligible again in 2010.
The prosecution’s case focused mainly on Smith’s cruelty towards Derrick Robie. First, he lured the child into a secluded area and strangled him before battering him with rocks. He poured Kool-Aid on him and sodomized the 4 year-old with a tree branch. Smith spent so much time with Robie’s body after his death that it was clear to investigators and Tunney that Smith enjoyed it. The prosecution also presented Smith’s involvement in the investigation. Smith first lied, and later volunteered the information that he had seen Robie that day. After leading investigators to the crime scene, he expressed excitement and joy as he described what Robie was wearing and carrying. He only became upset when it was clear that he was a suspect. Finally, Smith did not apologize for his actions during the trial, and he showed no remorse whatsoever.
In order to prove insanity, defense attorney Kevin Bradley argued that Smith was mentally ill due to abuse, bullying and his mother’s epilepsy medication (which she had taken during her pregnancy). According to Bradley, Smith’s problems began as a toddler and requests for help with his anger were denied by his adoptive father. Dr. Herman, a psychiatrist, diagnosed Smith with uncontrollable rage. Smith had no friends at school and was bullied constantly. The defense included speculation of abuse, though Smith admitted ten years later that there had been none. Finally, Bradley showed that the drug Tridione (used to control epilepsy) has been proven to cause birth defects, such as Smith’s developmental delays, which contributed to Smith’s low self-esteem and eventually, to the rage he showed towards Robie.
The defense strategy failed when Smith was convicted and sentenced. Not only was Smith given the maximum sentence, but his case was the trigger to increase the maximum sentence for juvenile offenders due to the horrific nature of the crime (Myers, 2007). The sentence was the result of Tunney’s impassioned stance that if given anything less than the maximum sentence, Eric Smith would undoubtedly kill again, evidenced by his lack of empathy for his victim.
Eric Smith’s punishment was appropriate and fair. Until the public can be reassured that Smith will not kill again, he needs to be incarcerated and rehabilitated. Fortunately, the juvenile justice system provides such therapy to young offenders like Smith. His current attorney, Susan Betzjitomir, insists that Smith has been rehabilitated and is ready to return to society, where he plans to attend college and conduct forensic research on juveniles who kill. The more important question, however, is why Eric Smith killed Derrick Robie. Until that question is answered, his release presents a risk to society. Many theories have been presented; the most logical conclusion is that Smith killed for two reasons: first, because he was biologically prone to doing so and second, because those biological factors led to a downward spiral of being unable to cope with anger, frustration and social isolation.
Smith knew at an early age that he was unable to cope with his rage and asked his adoptive father for help. Instead of referring him to a professional, his father gave him the only advice he knew – he told Eric to go out and hit something until he felt better. While this is a common way for men to deal with their anger, it neglected Smith’s biological tendency towards violence. This advice played a large part in Smith’s crime – he later explained his actions by stating, “Because instead of me being hurt, I was hurting someone else.” This indicates a personality disorder, as he had no sense of social reciprocity or empathy (Bleiberg, 2001).
The theory of positivism states that individuals may be predisposed to commit crimes based on biological factors. Because Eric Smith’s problems began as a toddler, long before any abuse or bullying became factors, it is likely that part of his problem is biological and out of his control. There are also physical manifestations, such as his low-set ears. These biological abnormalities, combined with developmental delays, left Smith ill-prepared to cope with the cruelty of local bullies. School became a kind of hell for him because he had nothing to look forward to but abuse by his peers. He had no friends and no one to turn to for help with his problems. According to Magdalena Romanowicz, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic, “A history of child abuse makes most psychiatric illnesses worse,” (Romanowicz, 2009).
In conclusion, it is time to look towards the future, both for Eric Smith and the Robie family. More research needs to be conducted in order to determine how much the biological abnormalities contributed to his crime and if they can be controlled through therapy and behavior modification. Legally, he has served his time and will be eligible for parole every two years. Morally, however, Smith will never be able to make up for the pain he caused the Robie family, who are active in preventing his release and will continue to participate in his parole hearings. Eric Smith would like to conduct research on the effect of bullying on children and how it contributes to violence. In light of past tragedies, such as the Columbine massacres, Smith’s insights into the mental breakdown of a bullied child may shed light on how to prevent juvenile violence in the future.
Bleiberg, M.D. , Efrain (2001). Preventing personality disorders. Retrieved June 22, 2009, from Associated Counselors and Therapists Web site: http://www.beachpsych.com/pages/cc50.html
Leung, Rebecca (2004 Dec 10). Why did Eric kill? 48 hours cbs news. Retrieved June 22, 2009, from 48 Hours Mystery Web site: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/12/10/48hours/main660314.shtml
Myers, Debra (2007 Dec 4). Eric smith: his case helped to change juvenile laws. Retrieved June 22, 2009, from Digital Journal Web site: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/246963/Eric_Smith_His_Case_Helped_To_Change_Juvenile_Laws
Romanowicz, Magdalena (2009 May 24). Psychological impact of child abuse. Retrieved June 22, 2009, from Science Daily Web site: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521112831.htm