Janice Clark Smith, admitted killer of the father who hurt everyone he ever touched, floated out of the parole office Thursday morning in Rock Hill.
She walked through a crowd of quiet, unhappy parolees, but Smith was different. Her feet didn't seem to touch the sidewalk. She strode, her arms raised in triumph over the evil done to her until her granddaughter ran into those arms.
The haunting ghost of an abusive father who took seven years of Smith's life to prison and parole - after taking the first 49 years of her life with abuse - was finally gone.
Smith is no longer haunted by her father. Or shackled to the justice system, either, for killing him.
Joyous, was this 56-year-old grandmother of nine who killed her father. George Manley Clark, dead almost seven years - his lifetime of abuse against his family finally died Thursday, too.
"I'm finally free of him!" Smith yelled out to her crying family, and the whole world. "My life starts again.
"Today, I am free."
A lifetime of terror
Out in rural Catawba in southeastern York County over almost five decades, George Manley Clark beat his family - all of them - including Smith's mother, two sisters and three brothers.
George Manley Clark terrorized them all their entire lives. He never stopped holding shotguns to his children's heads, or a pistol to his wife's head, or executing family pets in front of them to their screams of horror - until Smith ended it all on a cold December night in 2003.
Smith poured one last glass of wine for her drunken father and chased it with three .32-caliber slugs to his sunken chest.
Smith confessed almost immediately afterward. She pleaded guilty - six years ago today - to voluntary manslaughter.
She admitted that - even for the man described in court as a "monster" and worse - she should not have taken the law into her own hands.
Smith served 17 months in prison on a seven-year sentence before being paroled. When she was sentenced, a judge ruled she was eligible to serve just a quarter of her sentence because of the lifetime of abuse she endured before the killing.
On Thursday morning, all those horrible years of abuse and crying and cowering, then prison and parole, had ended.
Smith walked into the arms of family, her sisters, who also had been abused all their lives by George Manley Clark until she did what others had considered doing for so long because the beatings and torture was so bad.
"Killing isn't right, but all I ever wanted was peace for my momma, safety for her and the rest of the family," Smith said Thursday.
There was crying Thursday from George Manley Clark's other children, but not over his death. They were tears of joy for Smith's release.
"I just wish I could have been the one to go to jail instead of Janice," said sister Glenda Clark Evans. "She was always the quiet one, the one who took the most from him and never complained.
"We all suffered, but then Janice had to suffer the consequences."
Sherri Clark Thornburg, another sister, called what happened to the family for so long "our hidden shame."
"Nobody knew how bad it was," Thornburg said. "Nobody knew how bad our momma's life was, what all of us had to endure, until Janice did what she did."
A murder that wasn't
Nobody - not prosecutors, not Smith, not her lawyer - ever said the killing of George Manley Clark wasn't, factually, murder.
Smith went to her father's house in Catawba with a gun after drinking wine all that December day. She scratched out a letter to her family that said she was on her way to kill her father - even admitted that she had gone there a month before planning to shoot him.
Days before the killing, Clark had beaten Smith badly after she had tried to visit her cancer-ridden mother.
The day after the shooting, Smith herself called the police to report that she had shot her father, told them where he was so the body could be found.
She asked the cops to "come get me."
Prosecutors agreed to a plea to manslaughter when it became clear just how rampant the abuse had been - as horrible as a family has maybe ever endured.
A clinical psychologist testified it was the worst case of abuse she had seen in almost 30 years of horrible abuse cases.
On the day Smith pleaded guilty, more than 40 members of George Manley Clark's family fought through tears to tell a judge what hell on earth was like.
The beatings, the guns to the head, the cutting of a crying 5-year-old sister's hair with a pocketknife as she suffered with leukemia.
Calling his daughters whores, his sexual taunts and worse, his beating them as children, teens, adults.
Through all those years, George Manley Clark was only caught once, in 1987 - after his own children were grown - when he was convicted of molesting two little girls.
The family all testified then that they were terrified that if anyone found out about the beatings and abuse, George Manley Clark would maim, hurt or kill them all.
'Enduring hell twice'
The last words George Manley Clark ever spoke came after the first bullet crashed through his ribs, into his lungs and bitter heart.
The 73-year-old alcoholic abuser looked at his daughter standing feet away with a gun and said with a surly cackle: "Well, you finally done it now."
Then Smith shot him twice more.
Martha Clark, Smith's mother, explained in court all those years ago that she was a woman without options, a prisoner of her husband, whose eternal regret was that she didn't take her children out of the house forever years before.
Clark cried when she said she was the one who should go to prison, not her daughter, who ended a lifetime of violence and fear for all of them.
But Janice Smith did go to prison, for 17 months.
After The Herald's stories about the abuse and news of Smith's killing her father went national, the family appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and twice on Larry King Live.
The country - not just York County - was sickened by the abuse. Letters poured into prison urging Smith to stay strong until she could be released.
In Arizona, a lady named Lori Johnson watched that Oprah show and started an organization called Justice for Janice devoted to stopping abuse. Johnson wrote to Smith in prison and came to see her after she was released on parole in January 2006.
On Thursday, Johnson came all the way from Arizona to be there when Smith became officially free of parole - and her father.
"Janice Smith had to endure hell, twice," Johnson said. "Her father's hell, then prison and parole for killing him."
Her lawyer, York County chief public defender Harry Dest, said Smith's plea bargain and reduced sentence showed the compassion and mercy of the justice system. It showed how a "very, very good person, after a lifetime of being victimized, was capable of doing something very, very bad."
'A real birthday present'
Around York County in the years since Smith killed her father, people still talk to her, her sisters, her two daughters, about the killing.
"They have always been supportive, asking about how could I put up with it, the abuse, for so long," Smith said. "Nobody ever said anything to me out there about taking the law into my own hands."
Yet that is exactly what Janice Smith did. She knew it then, and she knows it now.
Shannon Ellis and Alicia Watts, say the community never wavered in support of their mother.
"People still come up to me and say she never should have gone to prison, that he had it coming to him," Ellis said.
But Janice Clark Smith did go to prison because killings - even of horrible abusers - have consequences.
Smith and her sisters urge anyone who is abused to call the police.
"No family should ever go through what we did," Smith said.
Smith's mother died from cancer before her parole ended. Her husband, Jerry Smith - her rock through life, then prison and afterward - died a few months ago.
"I did what I did, and I paid for it," Smith said. "My mother is dead and now my husband is gone. He was so supportive.
"I hoped he would live to see this day."
Smith, a widow now, spends most of her time taking care of her grandchildren. She hopes someday to receive a pardon - "to clear my record, if possible."
She is a woman with a future, said Dest, her lawyer.
"When I met Janice Smith after she was arrested," he said, "she was a fragile, broken, damaged person from all she had endured at the hands of her father.
"But she is different now, and has been, with the help of her family and friends and supporters. I am proud to have been a part of that healing."
On Thursday Smith's 4-year-old granddaughter, Zoe, had something to say after the hugs outside the parole office.
"MawMaw is free!" Zoe said.
Zoe's mother, Alicia Watts, said the end of parole is the beginning of a new life for her mother and the whole family.
"My mother pleaded guilty for killing my grandfather on my birthday," Watts said. "I watched her go away to prison on my birthday. That was six years ago.
"Tomorrow is my birthday, and my mother has finished this horrible part of her life. This is a real birthday present. The present is her freedom."
Then Smith declared herself finally free of prison, free of parole.
She then hugged her granddaughter, and this lady - no longer haunted by an abusive ghost - went off to the rest of her free life.
"Free from my father."
Andrew Dys - 803-329-4065 -firstname.lastname@example.org