How William F. Buckley befriended a convicted murderer and helped get him released

How William F. Buckley befriended a convicted murderer and helped get him released
William F. Buckley in 1954 (Wikimedia Commons).

The late William F. Buckley, conservative founder of the National Review, was known for his get-tough-on-crime views — and he wasn’t shy about forcefully debating liberals and progressives when it came to the United States’ criminal justice system. But Edgar Herbert Smith, Jr., a New Jersey man sentenced to death for murdering a teenage girl, found an unlikely ally in Buckley — whose relationship with Smith is one of the things that author Sarah Weinman describes in her book “Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free.”

Smith was sentenced to death for the 1957 murder of 15-year-old Victoria Ann Zielinski, a high school student in Ramsey, New Jersey. While on Death Row awaiting his execution, Smith began corresponding with Buckley — who became convinced of his innocence, wrote about the case extensively and hired a high-powered legal team to pursue the case. In 1971, Smith was granted a retrial, accepted a plea deal for time served and was released.

Five years later, in 1976, Smith kidnapped 33-year-old Lefteriya "Lisa" Ozbun (a native of Istanbul, Turkey) at knifepoint in San Diego and tried to kill her. But Ozbun survived and testified against Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison — and Smith, during that case, admitted that he had murdered Zielinski back in 1957.

Buckley, the most famous conservative journalist in the United States, had helped a murderer go free. Smith died in prison in 2017 at the age of 83. Ozbun died in 2019.

Journalist Jake Bittle reviews Weinman’s book in an article published by The Nation on June 16, focusing heavily on Buckley’s efforts on Smith’s behalf.

“(Weinman) tells the story of how Edgar Smith, sentenced to die for murdering a young girl, charmed his way into literary stardom and eventual freedom by preying on the naïveté of the public,” Bittle explains. “Weinman doesn’t want to figure out why Smith killed the girl, but rather, why his actions were the object of a prurient and sympathetic fascination…. While Smith languished in the ‘death house’ waiting for his end, his case attracted the attention of the prominent conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., who read about Smith in a local news article that documented his time in prison.”

Bittle continues, “The article mentioned that Smith was a fan of Barry Goldwater and of Buckley’s National Review, so Buckley decided to write him a letter. He soon found himself impressed by Smith’s intelligence and became convinced of his innocence, so much so that he wrote a long article in Esquire (in 1965) attacking the prosecution’s ‘inherently implausible’ case. Buckley was in favor of stricter criminal justice more broadly and even of the death penalty, but in this case, he believed the courts had erred.”

After being released from prison in 1971, Bittle notes, Smith “enjoyed a brief flirtation with celebrity” but “couldn’t hold down a job.” Then, in 1976, Ozbun had the misfortune of becoming Smith’s victim.

“In October of 1976,” Bittle notes, “he drove up to a woman on the street, pulled her into his car at knifepoint, stabbed her twice when she tried to escape, and then fled, spending a week on the lam before Buckley ratted him out.”

The fact that Buckley was so wrong about Smith has inspired a great deal of commentary over the years. Many liberals and progressives have found it incredibly ironic that Buckley, who considered him a law-and-order conservative, was taken in by a murderer.

As arch-conservative as Buckley was known for being back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, he would be considered a RINO (Republican in Name Only) by the far-right MAGA extremists of 2022. And some liberals and progressives, who disagreed with Buckley vehemently much of the time, have praised him for condemning the far-right John Birch Society. Buckley had no use for the Birchers, who were known for ludicrous conspiracy theories — not unlike former President Donald Trump, Fox News, Infowars’ Alex Jones and the MAGA movement today.

Buckley admitted that he had been wrong about Smith — and that he really was guilty of murder — but he maintained that the prosecution was flawed.

“As Buckley himself reflected, Smith’s story really was the story of a wrongful conviction, since a high court ruled that the initial prosecution for the Zielinski murder violated his habeas corpus rights,” Bittle writes. “In some sense, then, his release showed the system functioning as intended. It just so happens that in this case, the guy whose rights the system was protecting was not only guilty, but unrepentant and unreformed.”

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