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How a convicted murderer persuaded the women who loved him, the conservative establishment and the courts to set him free

by (author) Sarah Weinman

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Feb 2022
General, Hoaxes & Deceptions, Criminals & Outlaws
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2022
    List Price

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A CBC Books Work of Canadian Nonfiction to Watch For in Spring 2022
An Amazon Best Book of the Month: Biographies and Memoirs
A Los Angeles Times Book to Add to Your Reading List in February
A Seattle Times Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A Vanity Fair New Book to Read this Month
A Publishers Weekly’s Top Spring 2022 History Title
A Literary Hub Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A The Millions Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A Town & Country Must-Read Book of Winter 2022
A Bustle Most Anticipated Book of February 2022
A The Lineup True Crime Book to Be Excited About in 2022
A Bookpage Most Anticipated Nonfiction
A Bookriot 22 Great Books to Read in 2022
A CrimeReads Most Anticipated Crime Fiction of 2022
A true-crime masterpiece, this is a story of wrongful exoneration about killer Edgar Smith and the prominent crusaders who fell prey to his charm.

Having spent almost half his lifetime in California's state penitentiary system, convicted killer Edgar Smith died in obscurity in 2017 at the age of eighty-three—a miracle, really, as he was meant to be executed nearly six decades earlier. Tried and convicted in the state of New Jersey for the 1957 murder of fifteen-year-old Victoria Zielinski, Smith was once the most famous convict in America.
    Scoundrel tells the true, almost-too-bizarre story of a man saved from Death Row by way of an unlikely friendship—developed in nearly 2000 pages of prison correspondence—with National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the most famous figures in the neo-conservative movement. Buckley wrote articles, fundraised and hired lawyers to fight for a new trial, eventually enlisting the help of Sophie Wilkins, a book editor with whom Smith would have a torrid epistolary affair. As a result of these friends' advocacy, Smith not only gained his freedom, he vaulted to the highest intellectual echelons as a bestselling author, an expert on prison reform, and a minor celebrity—only to fall, spectacularly, back to earth, when his murderous impulses once more prevailed.
     Weinman's Scoundrel is a gripping investigation into a case where crime and culture intersect, where recent memory begins to slide into history and where the darkest of violent impulses meet literary ambition, human ego and hunger for fame.

About the author

Contributor Notes

SARAH WEINMAN is the author of The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unspeakable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece, which was named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, BuzzFeed, The National Post, Literary Hub, The San Francisco Chronicle and Vulture, and won the Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Crime Writing. Weinman writes the twice-monthly Crime column for the New York Times Book Review, and her journalism has most recently appeared in New York, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, The Washington Post and AirMail. Weinman lives in New York City.

Excerpt: Scoundrel: How a convicted murderer persuaded the women who loved him, the conservative establishment and the courts to set him free (by (author) Sarah Weinman)

Scoundrel: How A Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free

Edgar Smith died on March 20, 2017, just over a month after his eighty-third birthday. He spent almost forty years in California’s state penitentiary system, much of his last decade in health so poor that it was a surprise he survived so long. He was hard of hearing and barely able to walk more than a quarter mile, and even that short distance required a cane. A weak heart necessitat-ing six bypass surgeries didn’t kill him, either.

That Smith lived into his eighties is all the more remarkable because he was supposed to die nearly six decades earlier, executed by the state of New Jersey for the 1957 murder of fifteen- year-old Victoria Zielinski. At one time Smith was perhaps the most famous convict in America, counting William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of National Review and one of the key architects of the neoconservative movement, as his closest friend.

Scoundrel tells the true, almost too bizarre tale of a man saved from death row thanks to the years-long advocacy, through financial and creative means, of a most unlikely source. When police brutality and mass incarceration are perennially under a national microscope, when the lives of countless Black and Brown boys and men are permanently altered by the criminal justice system, the transformation of Edgar Smith into a national cause more than half a century ago raises uncomfortable questions about who merits such a spotlight and who does not. His story, and the involvement of the many people who helped fashion it, complicates the larger narrative of incarcerated people who proclaim their innocence and of prisoners—on death row and elsewhere—exonerated and freed thanks to newly discovered or long-suppressed evidence.

This book is, in effect, a story of a wrongful conviction in reverse.

As a result of Buckley’s advocacy, Edgar Smith vaulted from prison to the country’s highest intellectual echelons as a best-selling author, an expert on prison reform, and a minor celebrity—only to fall, spectacularly, to earth when his murderous impulses prevailed again. Though the relationship between Norman Mailer and the convict and author Jack Henry Abbott is well known, the comparable one between Buckley and Smith has received far less attention despite the resulting heinous fallout.

Buckley at first took up the Edgar Smith case out of righteous indignation on behalf of Smith, a man whom he believed to be wrongfully convicted and whose literary gifts, which transformed him from underachieving blue-collar worker to curious intellectual, made him worth saving. As Buckley came to regard Smith as a genuine friend, he also operated out of loyalty. As the lawyer and former National Review correspondent Donald G. M. Coxe told me, “We were taken in, I suspect, in part by our unwillingness to believe that anyone who loved NR could be a savage killer.”

Even after it was clear that his faith in Edgar was severely misguided, Buckley concluded, “Edgar Smith has done enough damage in his lifetime without underwriting the doctrine that the verdict of a court is infallible.” That unshakable belief exonerated a psychopath, elevating Smith to prominence and some power at the expense of the women he harmed, injured, and murdered. Buckley fell into the trap described in Fyodor Dostoevsky ’s Crime and Punishment: “An honest and sensitive man opens his heart, and the man of business listens and goes on eating—and then he eats you up.”


In March 1957, Edgar Smith seemed like a typical young man living in New Jersey’s Bergen County: married, the father of a newborn baby, a veteran of the marines, discharged because of partial deafness in his left ear, in between jobs. Victoria Zielinski, fifteen years old at the time, was murdered in the small town of Mahwah, her head bashed in by a baseball bat and a couple of large rocks. It didn’t take long for authorities to find and arrest Smith: Zielinski’s blood was on a pair of his pants and in the car he’d borrowed that day. He also admitted to the police that he had given her a ride, though he claimed that she was still alive when they had parted.

The trial lasted two weeks and was a standing-room-only sensation. (Mary Higgins Clark, years before writing the novels that immortalized her as “the Queen of Suspense,” attended every day and dated the beginning of her career as a crime writer to the case.) Smith testified in his own defense, and the resulting inconsistencies were noticed even by trial attendees as young as ten years old. It took less than two hours for the jury to convict him and the judge to sentence him to death. Smith kept appealing his execution and avoiding the electric chair. And since he was staying alive, he decided to better himself, enrolling in college classes, reading history books, and keeping up with current affairs through magazines.

Fate played a hand when William F. Buckley learned of a 1962 newspaper story about Smith in which the convict praised National Review as one of his favorite periodicals. Buckley and the National Review’s intellectual stock were rising among conservatives, but he had only just begun to write his syndicated newspaper column, On the Right, and he was still several years away from his quixotic run for New York City mayor and the first broadcast of his interview show, Firing Line.

Buckley would later learn that Smith’s access to National Review had been cut off after the prison official who lent him copies had been transferred away from the Death House. Sensing a story, feeling some pang of sympathy, or both, Buckley wrote Smith to ensure the prisoner would always receive a copy of National Review. Over the next nine years, through an exchange of more than 1,500 pages of correspondence, the two men became friends—and Buckley became convinced that Smith was not Zielinski’s killer.

Buckley wrote about the case, and his belief in Edgar Smith’s innocence, in several columns and in a 1965 story for Esquire; he used the fee he earned for the story to seed the Death House inmate’s defense fund. Smith had been acting as his own jail-house lawyer; now Buckley found Smith several lawyers to work on his appeals. Buckley also set Smith up with Sophie Wilkins, a dynamic and vivacious editor at the New York–based book-publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf. She worked closely with Smith on his 1968 book, Brief Against Death, which argued that the state of New Jersey’s case against him was riddled with holes and attempted, above all, to persuade the reader that he had not killed Vickie Zielinski.

Wilkins, as I discovered while working in her archives at Columbia University, became more than Smith’s editor. Their correspondence, which she preserved nearly in full, began in strictly professional fashion, with her recommending books to read and offering encouragement on the manuscript that became Brief Against Death. Then it devolved into something more.

They exchanged declarations of love, gifts and artwork, and mutual pornographic fantasies, his smuggled out through third parties to avoid the prying eyes of the Death House censors. He called her “Red”; she called him “Ilya.” Their fights about editorial changes quickly spiraled out of control, and then they made up, lovers’ quarrel style. Wilkins would, in subsequent correspondence with Buckley, express rage and embarrassment at how besotted she had become with Smith and how foolishly she’d behaved.

But that was only after Brief Against Death became a critical and commercial success that prompted many conversations about the necessity of the death penalty, conversations that had been brewing throughout the decade as capital punishment began losing support among the American public. It made Smith a literary star. William F. Buckley promoted his advocacy on The Tonight Show, the Today show, and other major venues in support of the book, and Smith eventually became the first convicted murderer nominated to join PEN America. The book was chosen as an alternate pick of the Literary Guild and was reviewed by every major publication (including a glowing review by the crime novelist Ross Macdonald in the New York Times Book Review). Two years later, in 1970, his novel A Reasonable Doubt garnered similar acclaim, including praise from the hard-boiled writer James M. Cain.

By the end of 1971, the tide had turned fully in Smith’s favor. A federal court of appeals threw out his confession and ordered a new trial. After a seesaw battle between state and federal powers, Smith walked out of court a free man. Officially, he had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and he was credited with nearly fifteen years of time served. Immediately after the guilty plea and the final ruling, Smith climbed into a limousine, Buckley took the seat next to him, and they went straight to the television studio to record two riveting hours of Firing Line, which aired on consecutive weeks.

Edgar Smith became a go-to guy on all things prison related. He published book reviews in Playboy and a self-interview in Esquire, appeared on The Mike Douglas Show and many radio programs, and returned home to Bergen County, ignoring and at times openly mocking the cloud of suspicion emanating from his neighbors. He published a thriller, 71 Hours, under the pseudonym Michael Mason and then another book of nonfiction under his own name, Getting Out. He met and married a much younger woman who believed in his innocence and moved with her to California. Then his celebrity status dissipated, and the gigs dried up. His wife became the breadwinner.

In October 1976, an old pattern asserted itself. Having been turned down for a job at the San Diego Union-Tribune, Smith lay in wait in a supermarket parking lot, where he dragged thirty- three-year-old Lefteriya Lisa Ozbun into his car and, while driving with one hand, attempted to stab her to death with the other. He came close to committing his second murder, but Ozbun struggled mightily, kicked a hole in the windshield, and man-aged to pull the car over, alerting a nearby motorist. Spooked, Smith fled in the damaged car, dumped it for another, and spent the next two weeks as a fugitive, tapping his family for help and money. When those sources dried up, he called Buckley’s office, reaching his secretary. She learned that Smith was in Las Vegas under an assumed name. She told Buckley, who promptly called the FBI and turned Smith in.

The following year at trial, Smith confessed to killing Victoria Zielinski: “I recognized that the devil I had been looking at for the last forty-three years was me,” he told the court. “It was at that time I recognized that my life had reached a point at which I had a choice of doing two things: I could kill myself or I could return to San Diego and face what I was.” He received a life sentence for the attempted murder of Lisa Ozbun and spent the rest of his days behind bars. He died at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, seven years before he was next eligible for parole, in 2024, by which time he would have turned ninety.


Humans are hardwired to believe what other humans tell them. Most people merit that belief and, when they breach it, try to atone for their mistakes. Then there are those humans who are able to manipulate, obfuscate, and make a mockery of well-meaning people, causing harm that takes years, if ever, to fully overcome. Writing Scoundrel was a way for me to comprehend what can seem like the incomprehensible: how Edgar Smith was able to fool so many who entered his orbit, be they intimates or strangers, and bend the American criminal justice system to his will. What I came to realize is that this story is a forgotten part of American history at the nexus of justice, prison reform, civil rights, neoconservatism, and literary culture.

William F. Buckley’s attempt to free Edgar Smith resulted in catastrophic collateral damage to women: Smith’s victims. Edgar had already robbed Victoria Zielinski of her chance to grow up before Buckley became involved with him. Lisa Ozbun came close to death, surviving only through happenstance and her own tenacious will to live. Smith’s wives and many of his paramours and female friends suffered psychological damage that lasted the rest of their lives.

The relationship between Smith, the convict, and Buckley, the conservative, was fascinating and complex. But it is the voices of the women, sacrificed on the altar of the literary talent of a murderer, that animate the narrative of this book. The nonfiction crime genre increasingly makes greater room for the stories of women, embodying their full spectrum as human beings rather than flattening them into by-products of seductive killers. I hope Scoundrel adds to this growing body of nuanced, psychologically perceptive work.

On several occasions, Sophie Wilkins likened the Edgar Smith case to a work by Dostoevsky. Her son Adam told me that he found himself thinking the story, had it not been true, “would have made a wonderful novel or a wonderfully trashy one. The three key characters—the celebrity political columnist (rich, Catholic, but culturally upper-class WASP); the brilliant psychopathic jailhouse lawyer, working class, Protestant; and the sparkling bright articulate Jewish woman editor—could hardly have been more different in background and personality, but they came together in a most amazing interaction.” 

Edgar Smith’s horrible acts, like so many other horrible acts of atrocious men then and now, were overlooked, explained away, or ignored because of his talent—and because women are expend-able. The shared belief in one man’s innocence and his literary acumen forged that unlikely intellectual triangle. It was undone when the totality of his violence against women revealed that his talent was a paper tiger, that brilliant people can be conned, and that the effects of betrayal ripple across generations.

Editorial Reviews

A CBC Books Work of Canadian Nonfiction to Watch For in Spring 2022
An Amazon Best Book of the Month: Biographies and Memoirs
A Los Angeles Times Book to Add to Your Reading List in February
A Seattle Times Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A Publishers Weekly’s Top Spring 2022 History Title
A Literary Hub Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A The Millions Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A Town & Country Must-Read Book of Winter 2022
An Alma Favorite Book for Winter 2022
An InsideHook Book You Should Be Reading This February
A Bustle Most Anticipated Book of February 2022
A The Lineup True Crime Book to Be Excited About in 2022
A Bookpage Most Anticipated Nonfiction
A Bookriot 22 Great Books to Read in 2022
A Pajiba Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A CrimeReads Most Anticipated Crime Fiction of 2022
A Vanity Fair New Book to Read this Month
A Flipboard Best New Crime Fiction Coming Out This Month

“[A] strange and compelling tale. . . . [Scoundrel] is a psychologically fascinating must-read for true-crime buffs.” Booklist (starred review)

“Mesmerizing. . . Weinman does a masterly job resurrecting a stranger-than-fiction chapter in American criminal justice. . . . This instant classic raises disturbing questions about gullibility even on the part of the very bright.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Enthralling. . . . The book is a must-read for true crime fans, but it will appeal to nonfiction readers across genres for its thrilling blend of crime, media, and politics in mid-century America. . . . An immediately absorbing story.” Library Journal (starred review)
“Wholly compelling reading from an author well versed in the true-crime genre.” Kirkus Reviews
“Sarah Weinman does an impeccable job with this wild story of murder, celebrity, politics, and the American ability to put unsavory characters on a pedestal.”Literary Hub
“Weinman, rightly acclaimed for The Real Lolita again examines the misogyny inherent in true-crime culture, then and now.” Los Angeles Times
“A portrait of a master of manipulation and the havoc left in his wake.”Town & Country
“Sarah Weinman digs deep. . . . Meticulously researched, Scoundrel paints a portrait of a criminal adept at targeting people . . . who he could win over—but whose violent instincts eventually led to his downfall.” —ABC News

“A hard-boiled true-crime narrative, detailed and careful. . . . Excels at being an in-depth exploration of how outside influence and support can affect the criminal justice system's slow-moving cogs, as well as the narrative of a con artist who managed to hurt a great deal of people.” —NPR

“Powerful. . . . An unsettling, and enthralling, reading experience, and an important one. Its analysis of a fundamental failure of the legal system leaves the reader with two persistent and pressing questions: What is the true nature of justice and just who benefits from the benefit of the doubt?” Toronto Star
“Exhaustively reported and compassionately told, Scoundrel shows how the justice system is easily manipulated, and how often it fails vulnerable women. . . . Scoundrel proves once again that Weinman is a modern master of the genre. . . . One of our finest true crime writers.” Esquire
“Weinman tells this lurid tale with all the narrative texture and tempo . . . of a true-crime classic. . . . Scoundrel is an agonizingly intimate depiction of an unlikely epistolary love triangle—the bloody consequences of which would haunt its besotted principals for decades to come.” The New Republic
A riveting chronicle. . . . [Weinman has] marked a territory of the intersection of true crime and literary fiction [. . . and] is able to tell the story in vivid detail.” The Boston Globe

“In compelling detail . . . Scoundrel keeps its sharp eye fixed on the appeal’s mystery.” The Wall Street Journal
“Weinman diligently and chronologically recreates the judicial proceedings, literary lunches, letter exchanges, prison visits, stays of execution and romances . . . that led from incarceration to exoneration and back again. Her research is meticulous and extensive. . . . Scoundrel is about who receives the benefit of our doubt and the privileges that attend that trust, whether or not it is warranted.” The New York Times                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
“[Sarah Weinman] takes on 1960s murderer Edgar Smith, who used his devious smarts to fool the public. . . . Weinman lays it all out with page-turning propulsion: a master of the true crime genre coming into her own.”BookPage
“Fascinating. . . . Not only recounts the crimes committed by Smith—and finds space to acknowledge his victims—but, more significantly attempts to account for Buckley’s fleeting, unintentional sympathy for the devil. . . . The picture Weinman paints is far thornier—and more interesting.”The American Conservative    
Scoundrel is a thoroughly mesmerizing work of true crime and American history, and Sarah Weinman leaves no stone unturned in this extraordinary story of empathy, betrayal, celebrity, and the criminal justice system.” —Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Devil in the Grove
“In the court of public opinion, a woman who devotes herself to freeing an imprisoned murderer, only to regret unleashing a sociopath on society, is often judged a victim of her own desperation as much as a man's manipulation, but what about the eminent public intellectual who uses his platform to do the same thing? Sarah Weinman defies the genre of true crime in this extraordinary book about a cause célèbre gone terribly wrong.” —Alexis Coe, New York Times bestselling author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington and Alice & Freda Forever
“Sarah Weinman has taken a minor footnote in American history—conservative icon William F. Buckley’s strange friendship with (and advocacy for) a convicted murderer—and spun a breathtaking narrative about the criminal justice system, betrayal, and our culture of celebrity. Brilliantly reported and immensely readable, Scoundrel is a smart social commentary with all the twisted pleasures of a psychological thriller. I defy you to put it down.” —Abbott Kahler, New York Times bestselling author (as Karen Abbott) of Sin and the Second City and The Ghosts of Eden Park

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