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A QUESTION I'M ALWAYS asked when I visit the South is "How y'all like livin' in California?"

"It's not bad," I say, "if you don't mind natural disasters." Then I steer the talk to cooler waters, like what kind of fool can defend flying the Confederate flag above the South Carolina Capitol building?I like to choose my battles when I can. But recently when I visited the South, all anybody wanted to argue about was Susan Smith's fate - not if she should die, but how. The most popular plan called for strapping her in a car and rolling her into Lake John D. Long - just as she had done to her two little boys one dark night last October.

In the two weeks I visited in my hometown (about 30 miles from Union, S.C., where Smith's trial was under way) I heard no mention of mercy, not a word, from people I'd always known to be merciful at heart, generous by nature. For them, it seemed, Smith had crossed a line, committed an unpardonable sin. A friend with two grown sons said this: "Mothers don't kill their babies. When she did, it was as if she killed a part of all the rest of us, too."

Flying home to California, I thought about those words and decided Smith didn't have a prayer of avoiding the electric chair.

Friday afternoon I stood on a street corner watching the annual pet parade. Pacific Grove, like Union, is a small, neighborly town that treasures its children and looks for ways to keep them safe and happy. Every year for the Feast of Lanterns celebration, a hundred or so youngsters dress in costumes and parade through the streets with their dogs and cats, hamsters and rats, parrots and geese.

Trust me, it's a hoot. An hour after the parade was over, I was still smiling about it when I heard the news that a jury in Union had spared Smith's life and sent her to prison for 30 years.

It won't be the most popular sentence ever rendered by a South Carolina court. But I suspect it's one the people of Union will find easier to live with.

Days or years from now, when they try to explain it to their children, they can tell them it was an act of mercy and grace. It had nothing to do with compassion or sympathy. There was no excuse, none at all, for what Smith did. Every attempt to explain her actions came as a slap in the face to millions of women who struggle as single mothers - or as victims of sexual abuse - and do not drown their children.

(That said, I'd still like to see Smith's stepfather, who claimed to be real sorry for molesting her, charged as an accessory to murder.)

Smith received mercy, not because she deserved it but because the people who judged her deserved to be merciful. They spared not just Smith, but all of us, from the horror of execution and ended a nightmare that began last October.

So now the people of Union can get on with their lives. The lake can be a lake once more, instead of a shrine to tragedy. And the children, perhaps, can have a pet parade each summer in memory of Michael and Alex Smith.

May the grace that found their mother be a healing balm to us all.