Joe Picchi Staff writer
Section: LOCAL,  Page: C8

Date: Sunday, May 19, 1991

Five years ago, Youel C. Smith III met a young Galway woman who would become his wife at the University of Texas law school and came to Troy as a young, inexperienced prosecutor. The transplanted Texan, nicknamed "Tre"

by his acquaintances, has served as Rensselaer County's chief assistant district attorney since 1989, a job that has recently catapulted him into the public spotlight after successfully prosecuting a series of high-profile, bizarre cases. The scenario, if it plays out just right over the next few months, could place the 32-year-old Smith - no longer green and inexperienced - in line to become the county's next district attorney.

Smith is the first to call such prospects conjecture and premature speculation. His elevation to the DA's office depends on many steps, the first being District Attorney James B. Canfield receiving the Democratic nomination and being elected a state Supreme Court judge.

"I would like to be considered," Smith admits.

He also acknowledged that there would be other equally qualified attorneys vying for the $80,000-a- year post.

His boss is the first to boost Smith's credentials.

"He's one of the most competent attorneys I've met, an inspiration to others, a hard worker with a burning desire to always be in the courtroom," Canfield said.

Smith returns the accolades. "Jim has been the perfect boss who gives you, without directives, goals he wants to achieve individually and for the office. He lets you do the job."

Willing to share the spotlight, Canfield assigned Smith to prosecute two bizarre murder cases and an emotion-packed trial of a college student charged in a drunken-driving crash that killed two RPI students.

Lisa Finkle was convicted of killing her stepmother by stabbing and bludgeoning her more than 100 times two years ago in their Schodack home.

Catherine Beaudoin was found guilty of drowning her toddler in a Sand Lake pond the same year.

"Both cases involved young women who committed heinous acts and then misled the State Police, one for a couple of days, and the other for a few hours," Smith said recently in his cubby-hole office.

"Finkle, by far, was the most interesting. She was very intelligent, very attractive and very complex. She wrote poetry, fiction and always seemed to be concealing something.

"It was a very interesting case ... it was just a privilege to have worked on it," added Smith.

Lisa Finkle's sister, Laura, still faces charges she hindered prosecution and is awaiting trial.

Public Defender Louis Catone, Finkle's attorney, who worked with Smith when he was an assistant district attorney, called Smith "smart and hard working, two ingredients to guarantee success.

"He gets up early and stays up late, does everything that needs to be done to prepare for a case," added Catone, another possible Democratic candidate if the district attorney's job suddenly became available.

Although the Beaudoin trial also gained significant publicity, Smith said he did not consider her nearly as interesting as Finkle.

"Beaudoin was of low intelligence with a great capacity to fabricate," the prosecutor said.

The most recent case, in which 22- year-old Peter Kral was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the 1989 traffic deaths of two RPI students, was filled with emotion. Kral, a SUNY Brockport graduate, faces 1 1/ 3 to 4 years imprisonment when he is sentenced May 29.

"This case was obviously very difficult for everyone to deal with," Smith recalled. "It's not a heinous crime like intentional murder. Two fraternity brothers were killed, yet so many people drink and drive.

"Peter Kral would seemingly have a bright future ahead of him, so the jury knows they are taking a lot away from him when finding him guilty. Yet two other promising young men are dead. I'm convinced the jury gave him every benefit of the doubt."

The case that still preoccupies much of Smith's free time is the unsolved murder of Mei Ling White, an 8-year-old girl brutally killed in the summer of 1989.

"I think about it every day ... and I'm sure plenty of Troy police officers are doing so too," Smith said.

Smith, who spent short stints in private practice, said he is more comfortable as a prosecutor, perhaps because some of his family members were crime victims.

"Some types of people make natural cross-examiners, always doubting, someone like Mark Harris, who was born to be a defense attorney."

Harris and Smith tangled in the Kral case.

"No matter how hard I try, I don't think I would have the knack he has as a defense attorney," said Smith of Harris. "Yet, this isn't a big office, and the time may come when I have to go back to defense work."

Smith said his most memorable case was not Finkle, Beaudoin or Kral, but rather his first felony trial - one with a "Perry Mason-type twist."

Acquittal or conviction hinged on testimony from a 9-year-old sodomy victim, who said the telephone rang during commission of the crime. Evidence was produced by the defense that the telephone was disconnected weeks earlier.

Smith said Investigator Robert Whalen's intensive investigation saved him; he found another telephone in the house. Investigator James Beattie whispered in Smith's ear that he should check the Social Security numbers on the telephone bill, information that helped seal the conviction.

"I was just a nervous kid getting my ears boxed," Smith recalled of his confrontation with the more experienced defense attorney, Gregg

Harris, until the critical juncture in the trial.

Smith has cemented his reputation in county legal circles, but how he will play politically is still unclear.

Although an enrolled Democrat, Smith is not active in the party, where many loyal to county Democatic Chairman Edward F. McDonough would vie for the job. Republicans also would fight hard to regain the post lost when Canfield defeated Republican District Attorney Charles Wilcox on his second try.

On Smith's prospects, McDonough said, "I only met him once .. and it's just much too early to think about that."

Smith and his wife, Alison, an attorney with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, settled in Hoosick Falls after their joint graduation in the spring of 1986 at the University of Texas law school in Austin.

"Texas is run on oil and the economy was real bad then," Smith recalled of their decision to resettle in the Capital District. "I ended up in Troy after a short stint with a firm in Saratoga Springs."

When he isn't in the courtroom, Smith relaxes by playing basketball Sundays in Hoosick Falls, excerising with his wife at the Troy YMCA or taking their three dogs for a long walk.

"No children. ... We don't have the time," Smith said. "At least not yet."