Robert Smith shot and killed his wife, Bessie Burgess Smith, as she and their five-year old son, Kenneth, were walking down the street on July 5, 1908. The killing occurred near their home in Elizabeth, along the Monongahela River in the southern reaches of Allegheny County. Smith had just been released from jail after serving four months for threatening to kill his wife.
Immediately after the murder, Smith turned himself in to police.
At trial, witnesses claimed that Smith fired four shots at close range. Smith claimed that he acted in self-defense and that he was insane. He also claimed that his wife was unfaithful.
On September 25, 1908, Smith was found guilty of first-degree murder “but recommended to the extreme mercy of the court.” The verdict was said to have been unprecedented, leading one newspaper to ask how “a man can be hanged mercifully.” “It is not recalled that any such verdict has ever been returned in the case of a criminal so unfortunate as to be deemed to have earned a noose” (Pittsburgh Press, September 26, 1908).
It is not clear why Smith was recommended to extreme mercy. The killing was premeditated (Smith had laid in wait) and without provocation and was the culmination of a history of abuse. Also, as a poor, black, Oklahoma-born laborer, Smith lacked the status or the resources often associated with such favorable treatment, particularly in an era of such heightened racial animus.
The legal effect of the verdict was that if Smith’s request for a new trial was refused, he would be sentenced to death.
Smith was granted a new trial on January 30, 1909. Retried in March 1909, multiple witnesses testified to Smith’s history of threats against his wife and his possession of guns. Smith claimed he acted in self-defense. He was convicted of second-degree murder on March 25, 1909, and received the maximum sentence of twenty years in Western Penitentiary.
Robert Smith died of natural causes in Elizabeth, Pa., on February 5, 1959. He was 79 years old.