by Heather Piedmont
Using the first fully televised court case as its subject, a recent documentary, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, examines the question of whether (and if so, how) the televising of courtroom trials have affected the possibility of justice being rendered. In re-examining the case and its key events, the documentary explores the question through interviews with Pamela Smart as well as with experts in the legal field and individuals who were involved in the case.
On May 1, 1990 Gregory Smart was found dead in front of his Derry, New Hampshire condominium. Four teenage boys, William “Billy” Flynn, Pete Randall, Vance Lattime, Jr., who drove the getaway car, and Ray Fowler, were soon found to be the alleged plotters/killers of Pamela Smart’s young husband.
It was discovered that Billy Flynn, who was 15 at the time, and Pamela, who was Director of the Media Center at the teen’s high school, were having an affair and Pamela was soon convicted of being an accomplice to first-degree murder; conspiracy to commit murder; and witness tampering.
Billy Flynn was convicted of second-degree murder, and his three friends were convicted as accomplices. The court records state that Flynn shot Gregg Smart once in the head as Pete Randall held a knife to his throat. Vince Lattime and Ray Fowler waited in the car.
As of July of this year, all four young men are either free or are in the process of gaining their freedom, as a result of them receiving lesser sentences for agreeing to testify against Pamela. William Flynn was recently moved to a minimum security prison in Maine as part of a work release program. Patrick Randall is now a minimum security inmate at a transitional work center. Vance Lattime Jr. was released on parole in 2005, and Raymond Fowler, who may have have done little other than wait in the car alongside Lattime, received parole in 2003.
Pamela Smart, however, based on her counts of conviction, is serving mandatory LWOP. Although her harsh sentence may have been inevitable, there is a real question as to whether the manner in which she was portrayed by the media hopelessly prejudiced the jury against her.
Character Assassination or Accurate Portrayal?
Smart’s trial was widely watched and was likened to a “media circus.” In addition to Jeremiah Zagar’s recent documentary, the trial spawned a television movie starring Helen Hunt and Chad Allen and inspired the Joyce Maynard novel To Die For, which was adapted into a 1995 film starring Nicole Kidman. The case was also the subject of several best-selling true crime books, including Teach Me To Kill and Deadly Lessons.
As the documentary takes pains to point out, the image that probably best captures the media’s attempt to portray Ms. Smart as a brazen, fallen and conniving woman are the infamous bikini shots that she allegedly used to sexually arouse her teen lover. In reality, however, these photos were actually taken with her best girlfriend to apply to a fashion contest literally years before she started working at the Media Center.
Jeremiah Zagar includes a telling scene that demonstrates that even today as she wearily serves her life sentence, Pamela is still scared to reveal who and what she was at the time of her husband’s murder because she still fears how the media will portray her.
The documentary also discusses how her alleged lack of emotion, once caught on camera, allowed any and all negative labels to be foisted upon her such as the now infamous “Kill for Love” phrase that was plastered all over her case even before the trial began.
It is noted that while in prison in prison, Smart has spent her time tutoring other inmates and has completed two master’s degrees in literature and legal studies, which were paid for with private funds from Mercy College. While incarcerated, Smart became a member of the National Organization for Women, campaigning for rights for women in prison.
Despite her academic success while in custody, Ms. Smart’s time in prison has been no bed of roses:
In October 1996, Smart was severely beaten by two inmates M. Graves and G. Miller, who accused her of snitching about their prison relationship. The attack resulted in a metal plate being placed in the left side of her face.
In 2003, photos of a scantily clad Smart were published in the National Enquirer; after filing a complaint, she was placed in solitary confinement for two months. Smart filed a lawsuit, claiming the photos were taken by a prison guard who had raped her. The lawsuit was dismissed but the following year, Smart and another inmate sued officials of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, claiming both sexual harassment and sexual assault by a corrections officer, who they said coerced them into posing for the suggestive pictures that were published in 2003. Five years later, Smart received a $23,875 settlement from the state of New York.
Everybody Wants to be a Star
It is human nature that, given the right circumstances, many of us want to be stars and grip tightly onto any opportunity to gain our “time in the sun”. During the trial of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, it was alleged that law enforcement personnel not only worked to gain financially from the story of the murders and eventual capture of the killer, but even conspired with her lover, Tyria Moore, while she was a witness for the prosecution. This unfortunate tendency is demonstrated in Zagar’s documentary, which reveals that the arresting officer wanted to re-write his first words to Pamela at the time of her arrest, or at least his first words as presented to the first reporter on the story, William Spencer.
In fact, what Spencer “thought” about what had happened to Gregory Smart, according to appellate attorney J. Albert Johnson, were set in media-stone by the made-for-television movie, Anatomy of a Murder, which was released to the public two days before the jury was selected.
There was even a mini-accusation of the police giving Ms. Smart a longer than usual perp walk “for the cameras”.
Brief Reflections on the Banality of Pop Culture
As the O.J. Simpson trial evolved, so did the hairstyles and wardrobe of prosecutor Marcia Clark; as the Casey Anthony case progressed, the Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton’s ties became national news when he wore a “Stay Dwight” necktie in the courtroom as a futile attempt to convince Dwight Howard to stay with the Orlando Magic.
“One of my sons had this made for me and asked me to wear it,” Ashton said as he touched the neckwear outside the Orange County Courthouse.
The current emphasis on banal inessentials such as State Attorney Ashton’s neckties may have gotten its start, as Zagar points out in his documentary, with the emphasis on Pamela Smart’s hair bow stories. Although this is perhaps to be expected in the world of pop culture, it certainly seems to beg the question…was justice achieved at Pamela Smart’s trial and what in the world do her hair bows have to do with that pursuit of justice?
At Ms. Smart’s trial, even the testimony, in theory the lifeblood of the proceedings, was reflected in true pop culture fashion. One of the “important” facts discussed when Pamela’s lover Billy Flynn took the stand was that one on of their trips together, they went shopping for cars.
The Connections We Make
The most engrossing and important issue the documentary really discusses is how we see what we see. Richard Sherwin of the New York Law School discussed it insightfully when he said that when we view cases like the Pamela Smart case, we see the “Black Widow” story that we know from movies and pop culture, which in turn almost blankets the reality of the situation.
“Ah Ha…I know the Black Widow story…I know the Ice Princess Story,” the legal expert stated. He then continued stating that once we identify the label it is “internalized” and cannot be removed from our perception of the case and that therefore we only reflect on details that support this biased and narrowed understanding of the case.
Even Joyce Maynard, who recounted the story in her now made-infamous-by-Hollywood text To Die For, stated that we all know the archetype that we are supposedly seeing in Pamela as well as a personal and heavily emotionalized archetype of the beautiful woman we love to hate, and love watching as she is destroyed both in the courtroom and through the media-fueled character assassination.
The Result: Was There Justice?
With Gregory Smart’s two main killers of the verge of being released from prison and Pamela Smart being literally scared of her own shadow to this day, what was the effect of the media portrayal on her conviction which inextricably led to her sentence of LWOP? While there were many honest and, therefore, rejected jurors, appellate attorney J. Albert Johnson stated that the jurors may have had their “bell” rung once they learned about the case before even entering the courtroom. In fact, Ms. Smart’s defense requested a change of venue and sequestration, both of which were denied. In the end, we have a woman imprisoned for life….and are left with the burning question: With all of this in the mix of the trial…could justice possibly be served?
And another equally important question: To this day, do we have any actual sense of who Pamela Smart really is? And, of course, we are left to wrestle with the larger question: If we can’t confidently conclude whether the first televised trial brought about justice…what about all the other televised “media circuses” that have followed in its wake?
Heather Piedmont, in addition to being a marketing coach is also a freelance crime writer and reporter. She has covered the Jodi Arias Trial and the Scott Peterson Trial, as well as the Casey Anthony Trial.
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