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19 years later, kid who killed faces us again

What should the punishment be for savagely taking the life of a 4-year-old boy?

Does it matter that the killer was 13? Does it make a difference that he already has spent more time behind bars for his crime than many adults who took another human life? How long is long enough?

The state Parole Board begins the process of deciding that question today when its members are scheduled to come face to face with 32-year-old Eric Smith, who is responsible for one of the most shocking crimes ever committed in New York.

Maybe you remember his name. Maybe you remember the red hair, freckles and oversized eyeglasses. Maybe you remember the photograph of a little boy wearing a polo shirt with a buttoned-up collar in handcuffs between two state troopers. I would like to forget all of it. I'm sure I never will.

Smith's victim, Derrick Robie, died Aug. 2, 1993, in his hometown of Savona in Steuben County, about 90 minutes from Buffalo. Derrick was walking to a recreation program when Eric Smith grabbed him, beat him to death with rocks and sodomized him with a stick.

My employer at the time, the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, sent me to Savona the day after Derrick's body was found to write an article about the fear and anxiety that enveloped the community of fewer than 1,000 people. It was easy to find. Residents used the word "monster" to describe the killer. The image fit. Who else but a monster would bludgeon a 4-year-old boy?

When police announced an arrest a few days later, the communal relief was overwhelmed by shock at the sight of Eric Smith, age 13, looking more like a paperboy than a monster and charged as an adult after he confessed to the crime.

Almost a year later to the day, Smith sat in Steuben County Courthouse in Bath, on trial for murder at an age when he should have been preparing for his first day of high school.

I sat in that courtroom for three weeks, hoping to hear answers and see remorse and never getting either. As witness after witness described the horror he had committed a year earlier, while a courtroom full of people dabbed at their eyes, hung their heads and covered their mouths in stunned disbelief, Smith's blank expression never changed.

He also never testified, leaving it to his lawyer and mental health experts to present a defense that he suffered from an intermittent explosive disorder, which to me always sounded like a psychology textbook version of: "For some reason, he just lost it."

A jury didn't buy it, convicting him of murder. County Judge Donald Purple later sentenced him to nine years to life, ordering that he serve the sentence in a juvenile facility until he turned 21, at which time he would be transferred to a state prison.

Eric Smith grew up in prison. In the last picture I saw of him, two years ago, his head was shaved, and he had a goatee. Although he never said so at trial, he since has said that he believes he snapped that August day in 1993 because of a lifetime of being bullied, being picked on for that red hair, those freckles, those glasses.

He has told interviewers he is sorry for what he did to Derrick Robie and to his family. He probably will express remorse when he meets for a sixth time with the Parole Board. He will make the case that 19 years locked away is long enough for a crime committed when he was a child himself.

I think of Eric Smith, and my mind easily drifts back to August days in Savona and Bath, to Derrick Robie and the horrific way his life came to an end at the hands of a monster who didn't look the part, and I wonder: Is there such a thing as long enough?