Eric M. Smith
(born January 22, 1980) is an American criminal, incarcerated for the
murder, sexual abuse and mutilation of four-year-old Derrick Robie (born
October 2, 1988) on August 2, 1993, in Steuben County, New York.
According to court documents, Smith, a loner, was
often tormented by bullies for his protruding low-set ears, thick
glasses, red hair and freckles. The murder case made national
headlines, largely due to the young ages of the killer (13 years) and
of the victim (4 years).
Smith attracted Robie to a remote location in a
park. There Smith strangled Robie, dropped a pair of large rocks on
the boyís head, undressed his body, and sodomized him with a tree limb.
The cause of death was determined to be blunt trauma to the head with
Two days after Robie's funeral, Smith admitted to
Robie's killing. In 1994 Smith was convicted of second-degree murder
and sentenced to the maximum term then available for juvenile
murderers ó a minimum of nine years to life in prison.
While in jail, Smith wrote an apology letter to
Robie's family; he read it on public television: "I know my actions
have caused a terrible loss in the Robie family, and for that, I am
truly sorry. I've tried to think as much as possible about what
Derrick will never experience: his 16th birthday, Christmas, anytime,
owning his own house, graduating, going to college, getting married,
his first child. If I could go back in time, I would switch places
with Derrick and endure all the pain I've caused him. If it meant that
he would go on living, I'd switch places, but I can't." At the end of
this statement, Smith states that he cannot bear the thought of "walls,
razor wire, and steel metal bars" for the rest of his life.
Smith has been denied parole five times since 2002,
most recently in April 2010. He is next eligible for parole in April
2012. If granted parole, Smith has stated an intent to return to
Savona. He was held in a juvenile facility for six years. In 2001, he
was transferred to the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New
York, a maximum security prison. As of April 9, 2010, Smith is still
at Clinton Correctional Facility.
Why Did Eric Kill?
Dan Rather Talks To Teen Killer About Why He Killed A 4-Year-Old Boy
Dec. 10, 2004
24, Eric Smith has long red hair and thick glasses. His prison
uniform seems one size too big. And the image he presents doesn't
match his crime. It never did.
At 13, Smith was at the center of a media storm. His redheaded
looks, and his age, were so completely at odds with his horrific
crime that he almost got away with murder.
"Thatís one of the things that has frightened me most in this
situation," says Prosecutor John Tunney. "Because I don't doubt for
a second, never have doubted, that had he not been caught, Eric
Smith would have killed again. And that's terrifying."
And Tunney says a decade behind bars hasn't changed that: "My fear
of Eric Smith is not diminished."
In 1994, Smith was convicted of choking and battering the life out
of 4-year-old Derrick Robie. A jury unanimously found Smith guilty
of murder in the second degree.
Smithís parents, Ted and Tammy, were devastated by the verdict. They
were convinced that their child was sick. He would be sentenced to
the maximum sentence, nine years to life in prison.
Dale and Doreen Robie, the murdered boyís parents, cried with
relief. But they didn't know that they were being sentenced, too.
"The hardest thing for me is when somebody asks me, 'How many
children do you have,'" says Doreen Robie. "Most of the time I
simply say, 'I have one boy, here at home. And I have one boy
waiting in heaven for me.'"
Dalton Robie, 12, has grown up in the shadow of his brotherís death.
"All I really know is that I had a brother," he says. "Sometimes I
just think about him and just start to cry."
This past June, Smith was up for parole, and the Robie family
struggled to keep its fear in check. The hearing was held at Clinton
Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., a maximum security prison.
"Some people have said we need to forgive, but I canít yet," says
Dale Robie, who is condemned to an agonizing wait, since the parole
hearing is closed to the public.
The summer Derrick was murdered, in 1993, he was coming up fast on
his fifth birthday. That's the first time Correspondent Dan
Rather met the Robies.
Derrick was all boy -- all the time. He was also the unofficial
mayor of Savona, a tiny village in western New York, with a
population of 970.
"He sat on the corner on his bike and waved to cars that went by,"
recalls his mother, Doreen. "Everybody remembers him doing that."
Smith grew up just across town, and liked to spend time with his
grandparents, Red and Edie Wilson. "He'd always come in and give us
hugs and kisses," recalls Red Wilson. "He liked being a clown."
"He definitely wanted to be paid attention to," adds Edie Wilson.
But Smithís bright red hair and freckles made him a target at school
for years. And as a teenager, he was seen pedaling around town for
hours on end -- alone.
During the summer of '93, Smith attended a recreation program held a
block from the Robie home. Derrick also attended the program.
On Aug. 2, Derrick was ready to head out to the program, but his
mother wasn't ready to take him. "Normally, I would walk him to the
end of the driveway, but Dalton that morning was very fussy,"
recalls Doreen Robie. "Derrick says, 'Itís OK, mom. Iíll go by
myself.' Ö He gave me a kiss and I said, 'I love you,' and he says,
'I love you, Mom,' and he went hopping off the sidewalk."
He had only a block to go, and no streets to cross. The park was on
a dead-end street. "It was the first time I've ever let him go
anywhere alone," says Doreen Robie.
A short time later, as storm clouds moved in, Doreen says she felt
something close to panic: "I swear that was the moment he died. I
think he was letting us know."
"Derrick was very close to us," adds his father, Dale. "If there was
any way he could have told us he was leaving, he would have tried."
What Doreen felt, but didn't yet know, was that five minutes after
she kissed Derrick goodbye, he was dead. The most disturbing details
of the crime, however, were never made public. But now, a decade
later, with the fear that their son's killer could be set free, the
Robie family wants the whole story to be told.
"People need to know what this kid did," says Doreen Robie.
On Aug. 2, 1993, Derrick's body was found in a small patch of woods,
halfway between the park where he was headed, and his home.
"He chose to end Derrick Robie's life, and he chose to do it in a
way that was much more than just killing," says Tunney, who vividly
remembers the crime scene and the brutality of the murder.
Evidence showed that Derrick was lured from the sidewalk and
strangled. But at the time, the killer's identity was unknown.
"He discovered and dug up one very large rock and one smaller rock.
And he battered Derrick with those rocks," recalls lead investigator
"He went into Derrick's lunch bag and he smashed a banana and took
Derrick's Kool Aid, and he actually poured that Kool-Aid into the Ė
that had been made by the large rocks. And he sodomized Derrick with
a small stick that he had found."
According to Wood, the killer then arranged Derrick's body: "The
left sneaker had been removed and was lying near Derrick's right
hand. And his right sneaker had been removed and was lying near
Derrick's left hand. It almost looked like the body had been posed
in that position."
"Eric continued to deal with Derrickís body because he wanted to,"
says Tunney. "Because he chose to. And most frighteningly, because
he enjoyed it."
The word "enjoy" would come up again and again in the course of the
investigation. The first time was four days after the murder, when
Smith walked into the police command center to see if he could be of
help in solving the crime.
"[He] totally enjoyed it. Totally enjoyed it. Didn't want it to
end," says investigator John Hibsch, who repeatedly talked with
Smith, and had no idea the killer was sitting right in front of him.
"He's looking right at me. He's very upbeat, very happy. He likes
the fact that he's being talked to."
At first, Smith denied seeing Derrick. But then, he abruptly changed
the story. "He says, 'Right across the street from the open field.
And that's when I saw Derrick.' And when he said that, he about
knocked me off the chair," recalls Hibsch. "He's putting him right
on top of the crime scene. I mean, you've just got to walk across an
open field. And you're at the scene where the murder was."
When Hibsch asked Smith what Derrick was wearing, Smith was able to
describe Derrick's clothing and the fact that he had a lunch bag in
his hand. "He said it was kind of cool, really," says Hibsch. "He's
bouncing around again. He's happy and he's telling us something."
Hibsch says Smith started getting emotional when investigators asked
Smith to tell them where he had last seen Derrick. "His voice
started cracking. He put his head down," says Hibsch. "He brings his
fists up and his fists were vibrating a little bit and he goes, 'You
think I killed him, don't you?'"
Smith then asked to take a break and his father brought him a glass
of Kool Aid. When Hibsch continues the discussion, he says that
Smith "grabs the red Kool Aid and just throws it on the ground."
"Now we all knew that Derrick, the boy who was killed, had red Kool
Aid spilled all over him," says Hibsch. "I'm thinking this kid has
seen something that's very traumatic, and there's a block in there.
And I can't get around it."
The next day, investigators asked Smith to get his bike and show
them where he was when he saw Robie. Wood was there, and said that
Smith was very calm: "I would have to say that he enjoyed it. He was
having a good time."
But Smith's grandfather, Red Wilson, says the family knew Eric was
hiding something: "In no way did we feel he had done it. So we felt
that he knew something, maybe somebody had threatened him. That's
why he wouldn't tell."
It's exactly what Smith's neighbors, John and Marlene Heskell,
friends of the Smith family, also believed. After the murder, Smith
spent nearly every night at their home.
"Eric asked me 'What would happen if it turned out to be a kid?' And
I said, 'I seriously think they would need some psychiatric help.'
Oh, OK, and he walked away," recalls Marlene Heskell. "And DNA
testing. He wanted to know what that would show."
Gradually, details began to leak out about the crime, and Marleneís
friend called with a new theory about the murder. "She said 'We
think itís a kid and they donít like bananas,' because whoever
killed Derrick had squashed the banana," says Marlene Heskell. "An
adult would have just discarded the banana. They wouldnít have
squashed it and made a mess."
Marlene Heskell launched her own investigation into the murder. "I
went up to the store and I bought ice cream and nuts and syrup and
bananas and I brought it home and asked everybody if they wanted
sundaes. Well, they all did," says Marlene Heskell.
"Eric was going to have the nuts and syrup, but he didn't want
banana. Ö 'No! I don't like bananas.' And I called Nancy and I said,
'Eric doesn't like bananas, and I'm scared.'"
Five days after he was killed, Derrick was buried in his baseball
uniform. And just two days later, his killer confessed.
Family members sat Smith down and begged him to tell what he knew.
But the truth was more terrible than they ever imagined. "It's still
hard to believe," says Red Wilson, about his grandson. "Something
must have happened to him. Because that wasn't my grandson."
A decade later, on June 8, 2004, Smith's parole hearing takes place
behind closed doors.
The Robie family has already learned in the most brutal way that
nothing can be taken for granted, so they sent a letter to the
parole board, along with home video showing the short life of
"It upsets me that we have to beg for them to keep this killer
behind bars," says Doreen. "My biggest worry is that I still have a
12-year-old. Thereís certainly enough things to worry about with an
adolescent, other than the fact that there could be a killer running
loose. I donít like to say that very often, because I donít want to
scare Dalton. But thatís the way I look at that."
The uncertainty also weighs on Tunney, the man who convicted Smith.
Will the parole board see things differently than the jury? "In a
lot of ways, it's like having the trial all over again Ė the
uncertainty of the outcome," says Tunney.
At the heart of the trial, which took place in August 1994, was the
haunting question: Why did Eric kill?
Tunney said, "The fact is, Eric chose to do something horrible."
But defense attorney Kevin Bradley said there was no choice. "Eric
Smith suffers from a very serious mental disease," says Bradley.
"The fact that he seemed normal afterwards shows he is not normal."
"At one point, he turned to me and he said he did it. I lost
control," said Smith's mother, Tammy. "I asked him why, and why he
did it. And he was just saying, 'I don't know. I don't know.' And he
The jury heard that as a toddler, Smith threw temper tantrums and
banged his head on the floor. He had speech problems, he was held
back at school, and he was relentlessly bullied. When he asked for
help with his anger, his adoptive father did not seem equipped to
give it to him.
"He was really upset. He was crunching his fists and shaking and
told me that 'Dad, I need help,'" said Ted Smith. "I said 'Hold it.
When I got angry when I was your age, I just grabbed a bag in our
barn and started beating on it until I was too tired to do anything
Then, Ted Smith said: "I heard a door shut, and I turned around and
he was gone. And as I got to the window, he was coming back in the
door and he was calm. And I looked down and I noticed his knuckles
and his hands were kind of skinned up and bloody. I asked him what
happened, and he said, 'I hit the tree a couple of times.' Seemed to
Defense psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Herman diagnosed Smith with
intermittent explosive disorder, uncontrollable rage. "Literally
deadly rage and anger," said Herman. "After the episodic rage, the
child may appear to be normal."
But the prosecution's expert said it was a rare disorder that was
rarely seen at Smith's age. Smith was subjected to extensive medical
testing from specialists from both sides. They examined brain
function, hormone levels and found nothing to explain his violent
But Dr. Herman still believed there was something wrong: "Something
happened to his brain, but we can't measure it."
Smith's mother, Tammy, said she took a drug to control her epilepsy
while she was pregnant with Eric. The drug, Tridione, can cause
Herman says he's not suggesting that the drug would have caused Eric
to be violent, but he does believe the drug caused Smith's ears to
be low set and caused his developmental delays, which profoundly
affected his self-esteem. He says Smith's pain and rage overwhelmed
"This stage of the trial is all 'Poor Eric.' Are there issues? Are
there problems? Sure, but it doesn't regularly produce killers,"
"Did he know when he was strangling Derrick, that he was strangling
a child, a person? If he knew what he was doing was wrong, that he
shouldn't have been doing it, then he can have every psychological,
psychiatric problem in the world, and he's still responsible for
what he did, under the law."
Plus, Tunney said that Smith knew full well that his actions were
wrong because he admitted that he lured Derrick into the woods for
the killing so no one could see.
But throughout his trial, Smith's face was eerily blank. He showed
no emotion and expressed no remorse. "I don't ever recall him saying
he was sorry that he killed the boy," said Ted Smith.
At the end of the trial, the ultimate question was left unanswered.
Smith never did explain why he killed Derrick. But now, a decade
later, Smith finally provides the answer.
Smith's new attorney, Susan Betzjitomir, is a mother of five and a
former college professor. She graduated four years ago from Cornell
Law School. Smith pays her $5 a month.
She believes that Smith should be released. "The issue isn't what
kind of disturbed child was he then," says Betzjitomir. "The
question now is what kind of young man is he now? Because that's the
question the parole board faces."
She credits the enormous change she sees in Smith to the intensive
counseling he received during the six years he was held at Brookwood
Juvenile Detention Center. Smith was transferred to Clinton
Correctional Facility, an adult prison, when he turned 21.
To demonstrate that he has changed, Betzjitomir allowed him to read
a statement he prepared. But she did not permit him to answer any
"I know my actions have caused a terrible loss in the Robie family.
And for that, I am truly sorry," says Smith. "Iíve tried to think as
much as possible what Derrick will never experience. His 16th
birthday. Christmas, anytime. Owning his own house. Graduating.
Going to college. Getting married. His first child. If I can go back
in time, I would switch places with Derrick and endure all the pain
Iíve caused him. If it meant that he would go on living. Iíd switch
places, but I canít."
Tunney's response? "I don't doubt that somewhere along the line, a
light bulb has gone on. And all of a sudden, Eric has a better
understanding of the enormity of what he did," says Tunney. "Does
that mean he's now safe to be back among us? Of course not!"
Reflecting on his troubled childhood, Smith describes the intense
pain he endured at the hands of bullies: "So after quite a few years
of verbal abuse, and having been told that Iím nothing, I shut down
my feelings. So I wouldnít feel the emotional pain, which made me
vulnerable and weak. But the damage was done."
Smith adds: "I began to believe that I was nothing and a nobody. And
my outlook on life was dark. I felt that when I went to school, I
was going to hell because thatís what it was for me."
Betzjitomir says Smith had no friends at school: "Nobody liked him."
At this point, Smith has come as close as he ever has to answering
the question that has haunted so many people for so many years. Why
did he do it? "However minor or major each abuse situation, it all
adds up. Until it gets to the point where the individual cannot take
anymore," says Smith.
"After a while, they may cope in a horrific way or take their
emotional anger or rage out on someone who had done nothing to bring
on such violence like Derrick. Not because theyíre evil or satanic
little kids. Itís because they want the abuse to stop. And itís the
only way they know how to."
But Tunney points out that Smith had given the parole board a more
chilling explanation for the killing. When asked if killing Robie
gave him a good feeling, Smith said, in a transcript of the
interview, "At the moment, it did, yes." When asked why he did it,
Smith said, "Because instead of me being hurt, I was hurting someone
Smith then talks more about what he believes drives children to kill
Ė and suggests that he was abused at home: "Although each case is
different, there is always the underlying fact that the kids who
did, who do these unthinkable crimes, endure years of abuse. Whether
at school, at home, or both. I had issues at home. But Iím not going
to talk about that."
Because of the sexual nature of his crime, the question of whether
Smith was abused was repeatedly raised at trial, but repeatedly
denied. However, there was testimony that Smith's older sister,
Stacy, was sexually abused by their stepfather.
Still, there was absolutely no evidence that anyone had sexually
abused Eric. In fact, a decade later, Smith himself told the parole
board there was no abuse.
Smith has made the case that he is uniquely qualified to counsel
bullied children, and one day sees himself as a forensic
psychologist, doing research on children who kill. "You may think
I'm a threat to the well-being of society," says Smith. "And I can
understand why you would feel that way. The fact is that I'm not.
I'd be an asset to society."
"I think society might be safer if he were allowed out to do that
kind of research," adds his attorney. "Because nothing will change
what happened to Derrick. But maybe something can prevent what might
happen to someone elseís child."
Tunney, however, disagrees: "Letís assume heís not a threat anymore.
OK. Should we release him? Thereís a lot more to talk about. That
is, has he been punished enough?"
The Robie family and the Smith family have not exchanged a single
word over the years. But they have found themselves face to face.
Dale Robie says he can't leave Savona. "I live on Robie Road," he
says. "And it's all family up through there. And without that
support, I think it would have been harder to be away Ė especially
A few months after the murder, the Robie family did move to a new
house in Savona, one that didn't have so many memories, especially
for Dalton, who's now a straight A student.
To honor Derrick, volunteers bulldozed the scene of the crime, and
put in a new ball field Ė in memory of the little T-ball player.
"A lot of people donít understand. They say that maybe we should
just move on, which we have. We move on," says Doreen Robie. "But,
as life evolves, we also carry with us this huge burden of making
sure that people donít forget him."
But most crucial to the Robie family is that the parole board
doesn't forget Derrick, either, and allow his killer to walk out the
After an agonizing wait, the parole board has reached a decision.
Smith's request for release was denied.
Now, the Robies want to give families like theirs more time to heal
before facing the anguish of parole. They fought to pass Penny's
Law, which lengthens the prison sentence for children who kill.
"Supporting Penny's Law was a proud moment," says Dale Robie, who
sees this as Derrick's triumph. "It gave us a little meaning, more
meaning. ÖHe was here for a short time. But now look at the impact
his five years have had."
Had he lived, Derrick Robie would now be 16. Eric Smith will be up
for parole again in 18 months.
His case will be
reviewed every two years.