Susan Smith's nervous paramour cast doubt Wednesday on charges that she killed her children to pursue their romance, saying Smith's anguish actually stemmed from a recent affair with her own stepfather.
Smith sat blank-faced as witnesses painted a conflicting portrait of the 23-year-old defendant as a vixenish adulteress, a lovesick secretary, an abused child, a frightened wife, a skillful liar and a doting mother.
But her composure crumbled when the diver who found her two small sons in her car at the bottom of John D. Long Lake took the stand. She wept as he described seeing "a small hand" pressed against the glass of the car window.
The most startling testimony came from Smith's ex-lover, Thomas Findlay, who said aloud what has been whispered here since Susan Smith confessed to murder last fall: that she had been having a secret affair with her stepfather, Bev Russell.
Findlay said Smith was in a suicidal panic the day before her children disappeared because she feared her estranged husband, David Smith, was "going to make it public" that she had cheated on him with Russell.
Smith's lawyers said in opening arguments there was "no single reason" why Smith killed her children and insisted they would not attempt to portray her as a victim or use the "abuse excuse," a reference to Russell's admitted molestation of Smith when she was 16.
Jurors heard Smith's love letters read aloud and watched a videotaped television interview she gave shortly after reporting that her two toddlers had been kidnapped by a black carjacker last Oct. 25.
They also heard from state and federal investigators who told of Smith's fake tears, curious smiles and furious outbursts as they confronted her with the mounting evidence that she was involved in the disappearance of 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex Smith.
State police investigator David Caldwell testified that Smith was first accused of killing her sons just a day after they disappeared.
"I think you're involved in this thing," Caldwell told Smith.
"I had a bad day," he said Smith replied. When she said the boys had been singing, Caldwell said he reminded her she earlier had described them as fussy.
"They were screaming, weren't they, and that's why you killed them?" Caldwell said.
"At that point," he testified, "she slammed her hand down on the table, uttered a profanity and exclaimed, "I can't believe you think that!' "
Findlay, whose rejection prosecutors say drove Smith to drown her sons, appeared to exchange a quick half-smile with Smith from the stand during a break in his testimony about their brief fling, which he said began during the Christmas holidays of 1993 and ended the following March when David Smith angrily warned him to stay away from his wife.
Findlay, 28, described an emotionally volatile Smith days before she sent her car rolling into the lake with her children strapped in their car seats.
Findlay, a slight, balding graphic designer, said he had begun seeing Smith again last September after she assured him that she was divorcing her husband, a 24-year-old produce worker at the local Winn-Dixie supermarket where Susan Smith worked before becoming a secretary at Conso, the textile manufacturing plant owned by Findlay's father.
But on Oct. 16, Findlay testified, Smith admitted she was not separated from her husband. "We agreed the intimate part of our relationship should be postponed 'til she was divorced," Findlay testified.
Smith's supervisor, Sandra Williams, also took the stand Wednesday, and testified about the day Michael and Alex Smith disappeared.
Williams said Smith came to her in tears that afternoon and asked to go home early.
"I asked her what's wrong," Williams said. "And she said, "Everything.' "
At 11 that night, Smith called Williams and said she wouldn't be at work the next day.
"What's wrong?" Williams asked again.
"He's got my babies," Smith said.