Defending Dad When I Was all of Sixteen

Mary Weinman has written a book entitled Scoundrel, which starts with the story of Edgar Smith’s conviction of first-degree murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in northern New Jersey in 1957 and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Weinman tells the story of this trial in the first hundred pages; the remaining 250 pages tell the story of how Smith was eventually released from prison in 1971, only to attempt the murder of another woman in 1975 in California, where Smith was sentenced to life in prison. Weinman expertly weaves the intense involvement of William F. Buckley, Jr.  in his personal advocation for the release of Smith from 1958 until the day of Smith’s release in 1971, when Buckley picked him up from jail in a limousine. 

I do not usually read crime novels, but this was of personal interest to me, as my father was the judge for Smith’s trial in 1957. That trial lasted two weeks, and I had always thought that my father had been done with it at the end of those two weeks.  What I did not know, and Weinman’s detailed account makes clear, was that because my father presided over Smith’s trial in 1957, Smith’s every appeal, every change to his list of visitors, every request for an interview,  in fact, Smith’s every movement, had to be approved by my father, and there were numerous instances of each over those fourteen years Smith was in prison. What I did know was that for all those fourteen years as my family sat around our dining room table after dinner in the evening and talked about how our day had gone,  Dad never once mentioned Edgar Smith. Dad left work at work, and his time at home was for other things – his vegetable garden, his projects at his woodworking bench in the cellar, the course he taught at Evening Adult Education on Irish Art and History, the most recent work by Teilhard de Chardin that he had read, or who he talked to at Mass that morning, for Dad attended 6 am Mass every morning.

I was all of three years old in 1957, the youngest of my father’s seven children. I first became aware of the Edgar Smith case in 1971, when I was 16 going on 17. The case was in the media due to the hearing early in 1971 to determine if Smith would receive a new trial. At the close of that hearing in February of 1971, the judge announced that his decision would come in spring.  Therefore, from February until that decision was made in June, my father was in an awkward spot, as a decision for a new trial could reflect poorly on the trial over which he had presided. 

On the last Sunday in March of 1971, I was up in my bedroom when I heard my father in a loud conversation with my mother.  I snuck to the landing to listen. My father was irate over an article in The Bergen Evening Record that reported on a press conference held by Judge Paschman, a colleague of my father’s and at the time serving as the Assignment Judge.  At the press conference, Paschman talked about several advances the court had made in the past couple of years in modernizing the court system. One of those advances was allowing people serving on juries to take notes, a change my father had both originated and initiated. At the press conference, Paschman had taken full credit for this change, giving no credit to my father.  This was what was behind my father’s loud voice, which eventually softened as the conversation with my mother ended with him laughing, as he said to my mother, But, Bessie, this is life, isn’t it?

I was 16, young, naïve, and idealistic.  I could not accept that this was life.

I wrote a letter to the editor of The Bergen Evening Record expressing my outrage that my father was so slighted. I was especially harsh on Judge Paschman. When I finished writing the letter, I walked to the mailbox a block from our house and I mailed it.  In my mind, if tables were turned, Dad would have done as much – if not more-  for me.

On the following Tuesday morning my father took a call in his chambers from the editor of The Bergen Evening Record.  He told my father that he had a letter on his desk from  “your daughter” and ”you really need to get some one over here quickly to get this letter out of the building. I cannot sit on it much longer.”  My father asked his aide to drive over to the Record and pick this letter up.

I do not recall the conversation I surely had with my father that Tuesday night, but I was not scolded. I was at first disappointed the wrong would not be righted, but I also understood  – without being told – that my father would not have stood in the way of it being printed if printing my letter would have done more good than harm. 

In 1974 my father passed away, and one of my older brothers was tasked with cleaning out 

my his desk in his chambers.  I still remember wondering what could be in the manila envelope which arrived to my house from my brother. In cleaning out Dad’s desk, he had come across my letter to the editor and a my brother was returning it to me. Dad had kept it in his desk all those years.

As I have kept it in the bottom of my jewelry box all these years.  To safeguard this relic from my coming-of-age years, I  include it here.

Editor, The Record

This letter is written in reference to an article from your March 28th issue of The Sunday Record. This article claims Judge Paschman as the man who has accomplished all of the current progression within the Bergen County Court System. This is so wrong, and anyone at the Hackensack Court House will tell you so – that is anyone but General Paschman – a name this plagiarizer prefers. 

Yes, I accuse this man of plagierism. All of his so-called accomplishments were brought to him by another judge, opposed by Paschman, but through the work of this judge, these progressive movements and solutions to the injustice of our justice system in America were put into action. Paschman insisted that this judge not reveal any of his steps to the papers. I suppose the General was just waiting for the right time to release this news. 

This other judge is Judge O’Dea – a man who has been dedicating the past five years of his life to the modernization  of the courts.  Every one of the steps that Paschman spoke of in that article was an issue first declared and solved by Judge O’Dea.  Paschman is just about the only judge who would have the audacity to deny this.

Judge O’Dea is my father. Once he calmed down after reading the article, he laughed and said “such is life”.  I can’t say such is life.  I can only say that such is what denies life.  I am not as enraged with this injustice as I am disgusted with not only people of Paschman’s nature, but also the Record for allowing such an atrocity to occur. 

I realize that there is no solution that you might offer to correct the harm you have done. I can only voice my opinion, and unless you properly correct this injustice, my opinion of The Record is going to be a low one…just about the lowest there is. This opinion shall be backed by this incident as a prime example.

You wonder what has happened to the youth of today?    Why are we rebelling as we are?   Take a good look at yourselves, as representatives to the people, and where you have been unjust. Why have you been unjust?  That answer is why we are rebelling – you have answered your own question.

Maybe you pulled on over on the public, and maybe Judge General Paschman is having a lovely Sunday, but you are all certainly making fools of yourselves in God’s eyes.

Susan O’Dea

March 28,1971

I like to think that as my father waited for the decision on Edgar Smith’s new trial in that spring of 1971, I gave him a moment’s respite. I lost him when I was 21, too young for any woman to lose her father. There was so much more he could have taught me. 

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