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Jay C. Smith, figure in Reinert case, dies at 80

Jay C. Smith, 80, the former Upper Merion High School principal convicted of a teacher's shocking 1979 murder, then freed from death row by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1992, died Tuesday.

Jay C. Smith, 80, the former Upper Merion High School principal convicted of a teacher's shocking 1979 murder, then freed from death row by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1992, died Tuesday.

"It is the end of an era of sorts in the criminal-justice system," said William C. Costopolous, Smith's longtime attorney. "He brought a lot of controversy to the legal community, but he always maintained his innocence."

Smith died at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, which he had checked into Monday for treatment of a heart condition, his wife, Maureen, said yesterday.

The murders of Upper Merion teacher Susan Reinert and her two children made Jay Smith the subject of several books, including a true-crime best-seller that spawned a television miniseries, which he tried to counter last year with a rambling, 439-page autobiography.

Smith continually denied his involvement in the Reinerts' murders, despite portrayals that accused him and Upper Merion teacher William Bradfield of conspiring to kill Reinert in a plot that involved a tryst between Bradfield and Reinert, and Reinert's $730,000 life-insurance policy.

Bradfield died of a heart attack in Graterford Prison in 1998. Smith spent his last years contending that Bradfield had named him as a fall guy for the 1979 slayings, which happened when Smith was already in the headlines for charges that he had illegal guns and drugs in his car and home.

"I was disgraced, and I think he thought I would be an easy mark," Smith said in a November interview.

Reinert's abused corpse was found stuffed in the trunk of her car near Harrisburg, where Smith was late to a court appearance that day. Authorities said they had found a Philadelphia Museum of Art pin and other evidence in Smith's car and home linking Reinert to Smith. The bodies of her children, Karen, 11, and Michael, 10, were never found.

Reinert died of a massive morphine overdose.

Smith was convicted in 1986 of the slayings, and Joseph Wambaugh's best-selling 1987 book, Echoes in the Darkness, and a subsequent TV miniseries laid out the case against Smith to a national audience.

Smith was released from prison in 1992 after the state Supreme Court ruled that "egregious" prosecutorial misconduct had concealed evidence.

Despite the surprising turn, many, including Wambaugh, still believed Smith was the murderer, a Pennsylvania version of O.J. Simpson.

"It's unfair that the public didn't get to know the real Jay Smith after he had been so vilified," said private detective Russell Kolins, who worked on Smith's case and believed him innocent.

Freed, Smith persistently asserted that authorities had helped set him up because of Wambaugh's book project, and he publicly feuded with the author. He named his 2008 memoir Joseph Wambaugh and the Jay Smith Case, and titled a chapter about Wambaugh "The Man Who Corrupted Harrisburg."

Yesterday, Wambaugh called Smith's death "good news" and restated a previously composed epitaph:

"I do not celebrate the death of any man, but Satan does," Wambaugh said. "A number-one draft pick has finally arrived."

Smith had been living in rural northeastern Pennsylvania since leaving prison. He married in 2002 and, with his wife, spent several years administering an adult-care facility. The two met in a movie theater, Maureen Smith said yesterday, and she had been unaware of Smith's notoriety.

To her, he was a chatty stranger who resembled Joe Paterno.

"We were both getting popcorn, and he asked me if I was alone and could he join me," said Maureen Smith, 63. "That same night, he told me his whole history. He did not hide anything."

At the time of his death, she said, Smith was working on a second memoir, about his time in prison and his grudge against Wambaugh. She said she planned to help finish it and have it published, continuing the fight to clear Smith's name.

"His past didn't scare me at all," she said. "I believe the man was innocent, and after I've been married to him, I know for a fact he's innocent of anything. And I know what was done to him was horrible, horrible."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete. Besides his wife, Smith is survived by three stepchildren and numerous grandchildren. His daughter, Stephanie, has not been seen since 1978.