The Jeanette Smith murder trial had the makings of a Hollywood movie in 1979, an era when little was yet known about “battered wife syndrome,” the escalating cycle of domestic violence, and the importance of coordinated community response to it.
Smith fatally stabbed her estranged husband, H.I. Smith in the back on May 12, 1978, during a domestic fight because she was afraid, after a long history of abuse, that he would kill her. She was charged with open murder and sent to the Grand Traverse County Jail to await court hearings.
Record-Eagle reporter Kathleen Stocking asked for and received permission to interview Smith in the jail. Smith’s detailed nightmare story of repetitive abuse shocked readers and local members of the National Organization for Women.
Kalkaska County prosecutor Philip Crowley asked the Record-Eagle for Stocking’s interview notes. The newspaper refused to turn them over, citing First Amendment rights. The case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.
Stocking’s story attracted the attention of attorneys Janet Prater and Dean Robb, who took over the case and decided the stabbing death was a case of self-defense. At the time most women who killed abusive spouses used the insanity plea in their defense.
The trial was moved to Gaylord because of extensive local, national and international media attention and started in March 1979. The Record-Eagle staffed it daily.
The jury acquitted Smith in April 1979 of second-degree murder.
- By Loraine Anderson