'Scoundrel' is a portrait of a con-man killer whose violent instincts eventually led to his downfall

By Mae Anderson
Associated Press

“Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free,” by Sarah Weinman (Ecco)

In 1957, a 15-year-old girl named Victoria Zielinski never returned home after visiting a friend. Her body was found the next day in a sand pit in Ramsey, New Jersey. 

The police quickly made an arrest in what seemed like an open-and-shut case: Edgar Smith, who knew Vickie, admitted to giving her a ride that night in a car the police found to be stained with blood. Smith also disposed of pants that the police later found, which were stained with blood that was Vickie’s blood type. And Smith confessed after lengthy questioning by police. 

Smith subsequently claimed he was innocent and put the blame on an acquaintance, but he was tried and convicted of Zielinski’s murder and sentenced to death. While waiting on death row, Smith caught the attention of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, then the editor of the National Review, after Smith professed his admiration of the publication. 

The two began a correspondence, and Smith was able to win over Buckley and convince him of his innocence. Author Sarah Weinman digs deep into their letters in “Scoundrel” to show readers how a cunning Smith worked Buckley’s attention to his advantage. A book deal was arranged, and Smith soon won over his editor, Sophie Wilkins at Knopf, too – so much so that they began a romance of sorts, though only by letters and supervised prison visits. Meanwhile, Smith’s lawyers, mostly bankrolled by Buckley, kept winning his appeals, and his execution date was pushed back later and later. 

Smith’s book, “Brief Against Death,” championed by Buckley, won warm praise from critics when it came out in 1968. And Smith’s lawyers, who argued Smith confessed under duress, were able to make headway with his appeals, too. Eventually, after serving 14 years, he was offered a deal in 1971 to plead no contest to second-degree murder in exchange for time served. A free man, Smith at first made the most of it, appearing at parties in New York and Buckley’s TV show, “Firing Line.” 

But after his notoriety died down, writing gigs dried up, and Smith’s darker side resurfaced. Unable or unwilling to hold down a job, he bounced around, eventually settling in San Diego with a new wife. Then, in 1976, he kidnapped a woman who was walking down the street and stabbed her in his car when she fought against him in a botched robbery attempt. She was able to fight her way out of the car, however, and survived to name Smith as her attacker. Smith returned to jail, where he stayed for decades, dying in 2017. 

Meticulously researched, “Scoundrel” paints a portrait of a criminal adept at targeting people like Buckley who he could win over — but whose violent instincts eventually led to his downfall.