As I write this, the only woman on Georgia’s death row is awaiting execution. I don’t know her and I know nothing about her case.
However, back in the 1970s and into the 80s, I knew a little something about the only woman on death row at that time. Her name is Rebecca Akins Smith, whose last name was also sometimes given as Machetti. As far as I know, she is still alive. She was released from state prison in the summer of 2010 after serving 35 years in prison. She was 71 at the time.
Back in the mid-70s, I was in junior high school in Macon. I had a small circle of equally dorky friends and we’d gather together on the upper level of the gym at Ballard A and talk about running away from home. Well, Vanessa and Robin did. The rest of us helped them plan. We didn’t ask why they wanted to leave home. We were all 13 or 14 and, of course, had dramatically miserable lives. I remember wanting to run away from home since I was about 8 and dreaming that my “real” parents would one day find me and whisk me away to their split level mansion in the suburbs.
In the meantime, I was stuck in Georgia, the oldest of five kids, praying to God every single night to just take my dad from our home. Just remove him, one way or the other. That prayer did not work. He lived until 2005 when he died at 64 of emphysema, the same disease that crippled his dad decades earlier.
By that time, I was too old to care where he was and strong enough to do whatever I needed to do to him should he ever try to visit. He left this physical earth and I am positive is sweating bullets where he is now.
Robin’s parents were married and from what I could see, were quite average. Vanessa’s parents were divorced and the situation was somewhat shady. She came to school one day, as our eighth grade year was ending, to announce her mother was moving her and her two sisters to Florida.
She couldn’t tell us where they were moving to. She couldn’t give us an address. As hormone-driven, emotional young girls, we were desperate to stay in contact. How could her mother do that to us? Didn’t she realize how much our friendship meant? What would we do without our friend, Vanessa? We were positive we would never see her again once she moved.
I don’t think any of us ever did.
Vanessa asked if I could spend a Friday night with her before they left. She loved horses and I think she either had one or lived near them. She drew pictures of horses in her spare time and signed them with her initials, VA, intertwined. She gave me one, which I still have.
My mother was strict and never let me spend the night with anyone she didn’t already know. For whatever reason, Vanessa’s mother couldn’t meet mine and my mother would not relent. I believe Robin went instead. As I remember her telling us the following Monday, Vanessa’s dad came over that night to visit and it got quite ugly with her mom.
We commiserated with Van, cried on her last day of school and vowed to somehow keep in touch. She got her mom to agree to let her write only one letter and it was to Robin. When Robin got that first letter, we gathered around her so she could read it out loud to us. We speculated on her new life in Florida and wondered if she would ever come back to Macon.
Then school ended, summer came and I quite forgot about her. Out of sight, out of mind. I had a “summer friend” who lived in Alabama. I only saw her and her sister when school was out when she spent three months with her grandmother who lived behind us.
The woman would yell at us the rest of the year, threaten to call the police because of noise and keep any balls that came into her yard but for the three months her granddaughters were there, I was welcome into her home to spend the night and share a meal. Talk about split personalities. Weird.
Sometime in August, as I was preparing for ninth grade, my mom asked if I knew a Vanessa Akins from school. I had actually forgotten all about her. It slowly came back to me. “Yes, the girl who loves horses,” I said. “She moved to Florida. What about her?”
“Her father and his new wife were shot and killed,” she said. “Her mother and her new husband have been charged with murder.”
Wow. That was an eye-opener.
The state’s case showed that Rebecca remarried and the couple conspired with another man to kill her former husband and his new wife for the insurance money her daughters would collect. The second man, who confessed to his role turned state’s witness and wrangled a sentence of life without parole.
Rebecca’s second husband, John Eldon Smith, was the first person to die in Georgia’s electric chair once the death penalty was re-established after a moratorium on executions. She was convicted, too, and lived on death row from 1975 until her sentence was commuted to life in 1983.
Rebecca lived another 27 years in prison before being paroled in 2010.
After their mother’s arrest, I read that Vanessa and her sisters moved to Athens to live with their grandparents. As far as I know, they continued their education and growing up in Athens. I found one of Vanessa’s sisters on Facebook a few years ago but she was not eager to re-visit old memories and I never heard from her or Vanessa.
I wrote about the case for a ninth grade English composition assignment, fictionalizing the characters and what I knew of the details from reading the newspaper. It was the first true crime story I ever wrote.
Got an A.