He’s likely the longest-serving prisoner in the United States. The state of Connecticut tried to execute him eight times. Now he lives in a secure nursing home, struggling to stay in the present and live with the past:
Even now, Smith seems to live perpetually in the time of his trial. He has mild dementia, and doesn’t always recall what he did a day ago. But he remembers his public defenders, members of the jury, who said what and when. He can’t stop replaying these details for anyone who will listen. It’s a habit he’s apparently maintained for seven decades. In 1953, a death row chaplain told the Courant he spent the long night before one of the aborted executions with Smith. Even on the verge of death, the chaplain said, “He kept going over and over his case.”
All these years later, he’ll say to me:
I’m in here on no evidence at all.
They never had a case against me.
I’m innocent under Connecticut law.
I asked one of the nursing home administrators if my visits were too upsetting, bringing up terrors from a lifetime ago, making Smith relive the days before his scheduled executions.
No, she told me. Being listened to “is happiness for him.”
But in our conversations, he would return again and again to the electric chair, still an object of primal, almost talismanic fear all of this time later. “It cooks you,” he would repeat, folding into himself. “It cooks you.”