What unfolded on the front pages of newspapers across northern Michigan had all of the drama of a made-for-TV movie or a pulp novel.
The wife stabbed her husband in a Kalkaska County home in what at first appeared to be a jealous rage.
But a larger issue loomed – had years of domestic violence left the 46-year-old unable to escape, in fear for her life, and with no choice but to kill her estranged husband?
Former Kalkaska County Prosecutor Philip Crowley tackled the real-life trial in 1979. Now, with co-writer Kenneth Wylie, he’s released a novel that grapples with the question again.
PEOPLE V. SMITH
The Jeanette Smith case in Kalkaska County came at a time when the country was just waking up to domestic violence as a serious problem.
Smith was charged with homicide for the May 12, 1978 stabbing death of her estranged husband, Herman Smith, 66.
It came on the heels of another famous Michigan case that involved a woman who killed her abusive husband by setting him on fire. That one spawned a nonfiction book that went on to become the 1984 hit made-for- TV movie “Burning Bed,” starring Farrah Fawcett.
As the Smith trial approached, she gave a jailhouse interview that described years of abuse. Former wives came forward with tales of violence. One family made the unproven claim that Mr. Smith was responsible for the death of a former wife.
Smith maintained she acted in selfdefense. The trial lasted five weeks. It took a jury five hours to acquit her.
In their book “Possessed,” Crowley and Wylie fill Kalkaska with a cast of fictional characters who replay the saga of Jeanette Smith.
NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED
There is a paradox at the center of “Possessed”.
Its protagonist is the abused woman who murders her husband and the book strives to let the reader see the story from her side; how even though she was repeatedly abused, she was compelled to return to her abuser.
That protagonist, however, is based on someone who in real life Crowley tried to send to prison.
Is there a conflict there? Crowley and Wylie say no, because, despite what happened in the real world, they stayed true to the story they wanted to tell.
“I guess the question could be, if I wanted to change it to where I won, or where the prosecutor won the case, that might have been a conflict,” Crowley said. “But the story was the story. And that’s kind of the story I wanted to tell.”
‘SEE THAT JUSTICE WAS DONE’
Indeed, despite the fact that Crowley lost the case in 1979 and he is now promoting a book that shows the defendant in a sympathetic light, Crowley said he doesn’t have regrets about the case.
Crowley, who nowadays practices professional liability defense law in Tampa, said it was his job to prosecute Smith.
His answer today could be the same as what he told the Traverse City Record-Eagle in the minutes following the verdict:
“In any case where there has been a history of abuse and that person eventually kills the abuser, it’s hard to get a conviction,” Crowley told a reporter in 1979. “But that doesn’t mean the case shouldn’t be tried. My job was to bring forth all of the evidence and see that justice was done.”
Wylie sees it that way, too. “He had to prosecute, given the law,” Wylie said. “That was a homicide.”
LONG, TWISTED ROAD
Wylie was first asked by the defense attorneys to write the story from Jeanette Smith’s perspective. He interviewed Smith for hours in the weeks following her acquittal.
Wylie felt at the time that Smith must have been in denial and the project was soon scrapped.
“Her stories, as she told them, didn’t jive with the trial itself,” Wylie said.
Wylie worked as a freelancer in northern Michigan at the time, and as the trial unfolded, he had no idea that he would ever be asked to help write a book about the case. He followed the case just like anyone else in northern Michigan.
“I was like, what the hell is wrong with this woman?” Wylie said, about when he learned about how Jeanette Smith kept reuniting with her abuser. “I remember reading that and reading it to my wife and saying, ‘God, this is hard to believe.’” Wylie said today he has no doubt that Jeanette Smith deserved acquittal.
When Crowley called him, around 1984, looking for help with his novel, Wylie agreed. Neither man expected it would take almost 30 years to get the book published.
It was the moral ambiguity of the real-life case that caused Crowley to decide to turn it into fiction.
He wanted to change some facts in the book so the reader wouldn’t have to answer the question that the jury had to decide in the Smith case: was the killing in self-defense?
Rather, he wanted the reader to decide: Is it OK for a victim of long-standing domestic violence to kill their partner if they believe that’s the only way out?
Crowley said the case taught him how difficult it is for domestic violence victims to escape. He said the case caused him to be a more open-minded prosecutor on the issue of domestic violence.
“I think a jury, without the domestic violence issues [explained to them]...would look at Mrs. Smith and say, ‘You know, why should we believe her? Why would this woman go back so many times? Why did she do this?’” he said. “But once it’s explained by the expert testimony, I think that a jury says, ‘OK, well now, her behavior’s explained.”’
“Possessed” is available at Horizon Books in Traverse City, Dog Ear Books in Northport, the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor and Leelanau Books in Leland.