Joseph Wambaugh and the Jay Smith Case

December 8, 2009 - Joseph Wambaugh and the Jay Smith Case (Jay Smith). Former Upper Merion High School principal Dr. Jay C. Smith recounts his odyssey through Pennsylvania's penal system as he fights to prove his innocence in connection with the deaths of Susan Reinert, a teacher at Upper Merion, and her two children. Smith is a central player in this case which played out from the time of the murders in June 1979 to the time Smith was released from death row in 1992.

Wambaugh wrote a book about the case, which he turned into a screenplay for a 1987 made-for-TV movie called Echoes in the Darkness. Smith counters with this book that implicates Wambaugh in what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately ruled was a case of misconduct at almost every level of the justice system.

Most of the 430+ page book is, to be frank, a rambling, unorganized, unedited mess. Smith skips from topic to topic with numerous digressions along the way. The tangents keep the plot, if you will, from progressing with any sort of continuity. The basic points, as Smith lays them out, are as follows: By the late Seventies, Smith had a good job as an administrator in the Upper Merion School District in the Main Line area outside Philadelphia. However, his oldest daughter was heavily involved in drugs. Her drug activity led Smith, late one night, to creep around a mall parking lot looking into vehicles. This suspicious activity led to Smith's arrest in connection with a string of robberies at malls around the area. Smith, though claiming innocence, was sentenced to several years in state prison.

The robbery case against Smith ended up being handled in Dauphin County (Harrisburg) due to a change of venue. Smith was sentenced in late June of 1979. On the same day as Smith's sentencing, Susan Reinert's body was found in the trunk of a car parked at a hotel just outside Harrisburg. Her two children were missing and their bodies have never been found. Reinert's lover and fellow teacher, William Bradfield, was the prime suspect and was eventually convicted of the murders. At some point, author Joseph Wambaugh became interested in the case and wanted to write a book about it. Smith's contention is that Wambaugh also "needed Smith" or there would be no book. So, Smith says, the author conspired with state police investigators and prosecutors to frame him for the murders.

Smith was just about to be released from prison on the mall charges when he was charged with the Reinert murders. This happened in about 1985. William Costopoulos, a lawyer from the Harrisburg area, was appointed as Smith's attorney. When the case went to trial in 1986, Smith was sentenced to death. Several years later, a junk dealer uncovered evidence that had been hidden from Costopoulos and that eventually led to Smith's conviction being tossed out in 1992 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The book is more of an autobiography than it is an accounting of the Reinert murder case. I suppose it would have to be since Smith was behind bars while the Reinert murders were being investigated. What Smith does is give a first-hand account of life on the inside. He recounts prison routine (both general population and Death Row) in detail and names inmates who he says perjured themselves at his expense.

My general impression is that, in terms of the Reinert case, Smith comes across as a man much too wrapped up in his own life to care what Bradfield, Reinert and, as Smith describes it, their sex-crazed circle, did with their personal time. I also doubt that Smith had any involvement in the mall robberies that got him in trouble in the first place. His biggest crime seems to have been acting strangely and then getting a bad lawyer. His biggest success here is in making me want to read more about this case which is still considered "open" by the state police.