A Gentle Reminder of What Childhood is Meant to Be

Every few years the New York State Board of Parole holds a hearing to determine whether Eric Smith, a 30-something murderer, has earned the privilege of parole. Smith has been in juvenile facilities and state prisons more than half his life.
 
It will be up to the Parole Board to decide whether Smith still presents a danger to society, whether he has been rehabilitated, or even if he has been punished sufficiently for the seriousness of his offense.
 
UPDATE: As of March 2016, Eric Smith remains in prison in New York. His last parole hearing was in 2014 and he may be up for parole consideration again in 2016.
 
His crime was incredibly violent, cruel, and cold-blooded: on August 2, 1993, for no other reason than he was angry, the 13-year-old Smith brutalized and murdered Derrick Robie, a 4-year-old neighbor.
 
Derrick was on his way down his dead-end street to a nearby park where both he and Smith both participated in summer recreation activities. On his way there, he encountered Smith, an acquaintance, riding his bike.
 
“Hey, kid,” Smith remembers calling out, prompting Derrick, who was walking there by himself for the first time, to turn around.
 
At that point, Smith told the jury at his trial, he “knew I wanted to take him someplace and hurt him.”
 
Smith asked Derrick if he wanted to go to the recreation program by way of a “short cut,” but Derrick said that he wasn’t “supposed to.” Smith repeatedly assured Derrick, “It’s okay, I’m right here,” then got off his bicycle and led Derrick through a wooded vacant lot adjacent to the park.
 
“I can’t imagine how I could have ever saved my son from another ‘child,’ Derrick’s mother told a U.S. Congressional committee looking at childhood violence. “Derrick knew all about stranger-danger, but this boy was someone Derrick knew and played with at recreation and trusted to an extent.”
 
There, in the quiet and safe New York village of Savona, Smith strangled Derrick, dropped a pair of large rocks on the boy’s head, and after Derrick was dead, undressed the body and sodomized the child with a tree limb. Then Smith opened the canvas bag where Derrick had put his lunch, stuffed a sandwich bag down the boy’s throat, and poured the boy’s red Kool-Aid from his Thermos into his wounds.
 
Derrick’s will to live was strong. When Smith began choking the boy, Derrick screamed and began to kick and throw punches. After less than a minute, the boy stopped fighting and Smith assumed he was dead. When Smith let go of the boy, Derrick again began gasping for air. It was then that Smith tried to stuff the sandwich bag in his mouth. Derrick bit his finger.
 
Smith picked up a 24-pound rock and smashed the boy’s head 12 times, finally killing him.
 
Over the course of the next few hours, Smith returned several times to the murder site and moved the boy’s body to a less-visible pile of rocks beneath a copse of trees.
 
He also told authorities that he was able to sleep normally and otherwise carry on with daily activities as though nothing had happened. He wiped blood from his hand and made certain bloody clothing went into the laundry at home the same day.
 
An autopsy revealed severe head injuries, including multiple skull fractures and cerebral swelling and contusions, extensive tearing and bleeding of tissues in the chest, a perforation of the intestinal wall, and pinpoint hemorrhages on the neck, face, and eyes, indicative of asphyxiation. The cause of death was determined to be blunt trauma to the head with contributing asphyxia.
 
Over the course of the next several days, police interviewed approximately 500 witnesses, many more than once.
 
Police spoke with Smith on the morning of Thursday, August 5, when he and his mother walked into the police command post to offer information that his mother thought might be helpful in the investigation. Smith revealed that he had been in and out of the park three or four times that morning, but stated that he had not seen Derrick.
 
That same night investigators went to the Smith home and interviewed him, with the permission of his parents — who at this time had no idea what their child had done — to clarify some minor discrepancies between Smith’s statements and those of other witnesses.
 
During that interview Smith revealed for the first time that, while riding his bike the morning of the murder that morning, he had seen Derrick walking on the opposite side of the street, near the murder scene.
 
Smith described Derrick’s clothing and lunch bag in close detail. The police had him perform an impromptu vision examination, but Smith couldn’t see well because he didn’t have his glasses, which had broken several weeks earlier.
 
When the officers became skeptical that Smith could have seen such details from across the street, he became emotional and spontaneously asked, “You think I killed him, don’t you?”, to which police responded, “No.” When police asked Smith if he had seen anything else, he replied, “I’m not the type of person that would kill, hurt, or sexually molest anyone.”
 
Two days after Derrick was buried, Smith tearfully confessed the crime to his family, who had the heartbreaking responsibility of turning their son over to authorities.
 
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said. “I killed that little boy.”
 
He told his family and investigators that he had no idea why he did what he did.
 
Smith was convicted of second-degree murder in 1994 and sentenced to the maximum term then available for juvenile murderers — a minimum of nine years and a maximum of life. He was previously denied parole twice before.
 
There is no doubt that Derrick Robie and his family are the victims in this terrible crime, and any sympathy for a 13-year-old boy sentenced to spend (most likely) the best years of his life behind razor wire and prison bars must be tempered with an understanding of the need to protect society and rehabilitate offenders.
 
Legally, Smith was completely responsible for his acts. He knew what he was doing was wrong and that killing another person was a criminal act.
 
But the legal arguments aside, did Smith deserve leniency, and does he now deserve parole?
 
“That’s not what’s at issue here,” Prosecutor John Tunney told CBS News in an interview. “Did he know what he was doing? Did he know when he was strangling Derrick, that he was strangling a child, a person? And if he knew that what he was doing was wrong, that he shouldn’t have been doing it, then he can have every psychological, psychiatric problem in the world and he’s still responsible for what he did.”
 
His behavior after the crime is proof of his legal sanity.
 
Returning to the scene of his crime, he told police that he “wanted to ‘double, triple check to make sure’ that the victim was dead. “I was worried if he wasn’t there he might say something however I figured if he’s dead, and I believed he was, I won’t have to worry about anything.”
 
There were a number of factors that helped create a murderer.
 
While she was pregnant, Smith’s mother took medication that some experts believe had an impact on him. However, even his psychological experts denied that the drug was directly responsible for his heinous crime.
 
The drug was linked to Smith’s physical appearance and characteristics. As a toddler Eric threw temper tantrums and banged his head on the floor.
 
When he began school the cruelty of his fellow children took over.
 
His deformed ears, his thick glasses, and his speech impediment made him a target for bullies and teasing. His bright red hair and freckles invited attacks from other children and many who knew him acknowledged that as a child he was almost totally friendless.
 
“He’d come home often on the bus crying,” his mother told the jury at his trial. “They would keep picking at him, throwing things at him, no matter what he said or did.”
 
His stepfather, who admitted having a “hot temper” of his own, confirmed this.
 
“They kept picking on him no matter what he said or did,” he said.
 
Smith’s stepfather also testified to his own contribution to Eric’s lack of self-esteem.
 
“Well, for quite a few years, I had a little hot temper myself,” he admitted.” There’s a lot of things I said: ‘Kick their butt up over their shoulders,’ ’sick and tired of their crap,’ ’sick and tired of you,’ ’swat them upside the head.’”
 
His parents’ way of helping their son was minimal at best.
 
“I just told him that he has to learn to stick up for himself,” his mother testified.
 
At an earlier parole hearing, Eric discussed what this did to him.
 
“After quite a few years of verbal abuse, and having been told that I’m nothing, I shut down my feelings so I wouldn’t feel the emotional pain which made me vulnerable and weak,” he told the board. “But the damage was done. I began to believe that I was nothing and a nobody. And my outlook on life was dark.
 
“I felt that when I went to school I was going to hell because that’s what it was for me. It was hell.”
 
His first targets for revenge were animals. Smith strangled a neighbor’s cat, drowned birds he caught, and shot at dogs with a BB gun.
 
The years of cruelty produced a young man who suffered from “intermittent explosive disorder,” an impulse control disorder that, as it implies, results in an inability to rein in one’s angry emotional responses. Some research has shown that a brain chemical called serotonin plays a role in causing or enhancing this disorder.
 
After his arrest, Smith was subjected to extensive psychiatric testing. He had previously been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and moderate learning disabilities, but the medical tests revealed absolutely no brain abnormalities normally linked to violent behavior.
 
Once again, the answer to what makes people commit incredibly violent acts eludes us. There is a very strong indication in Smith’s case that environment — and that means society as well — bears some of the blame.
 
Shortly after Smith was sentenced to a maximum life term, a statute of Derrick was erected at the site of his death. It depicts the youngster in his favorite baseball uniform and bears the inscription: “Dedicated to be a gentle reminder of what childhood is meant to be. Derrick J. Robie.”
 
Perhaps in a way, that inscription could also apply to Eric Smith.