For media, Smart trial was drama 'to die for'
Sunday, November 14, 1999
By Sarah Koenig, Concord Monitor staff
Spectators lined up for seats in the courtroom. Channel 9 scored record ratings with live coverage. A Boston paper even polled readers for their verdict while the jury was still out.
The jurors had just convicted Pamela Smart of first-degree murder, and a few of them were in tears. Judge Douglas Gray spoke to the jury in private. He told them the media would be after them, offering them book and movie deals. And his part, he added, should be played by Clint Eastwood.
The comment - which Gray later said was simply an attempt to lighten the mood - caused widespread indignation. There is no place for levity when sending a 23-year-old woman to prison for the rest of her life, many complained.
In fact, Gray's role was played by a lesser star, although Helen Hunt was cast as Smart for the TV movie - the same one in which Channel 9 reporter Bill Spencer played himself.
The Pamela Smart trial was the most highly publicized in New Hampshire history and ranks as one of the country's most notorious televised trials. Its tawdry narrative pushed its way into popular culture through newsprint, television cable lines, true-crime book jackets and, finally, movie scripts. It was verity turned cinema-verite, and audiences couldn't get enough.
It began in 1990, the tale of a pretty, ambitious 22-year-old newlywed who had an affair with a 15-year-old Winnacunnet High School sophomore, Bill Flynn. With help from a couple of friends, Flynn shot Smart's husband, Gregory Smart, execution-style in the condo the couple rented in Derry.
Slowly the shocking murder story unraveled to implicate the grieving widow, who was accused of convincing the boy to kill her husband in exchange for a future with her. Ultimately the boys confessed and testified against Smart, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering.
Smart is currently in prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y., where she continues to fight for release. "I have, and continue to, maintain my innocence," she recently wrote in a letter. "I only accept responsibility for having had an affair with Bill Flynn, for which I am deeply regretful."
If the coverage satisfied the public, it also caused some judicial, journalistic - and even societal - soul-
searching. Smart still has a petition for habeas corpus in U.S. District Court here, based on the argument that pre-trial publicity - frequently compared to a Roman circus - tainted the jury, and that Gray failed to safeguard the jurors, and Smart, from that prejudice.
"Who made it the soap opera it became? Who?" Smart's mother, Linda Wojas, said last week, remembering the many inaccuracies printed about her daughter, whom she believes is innocent. "You'd see something in the paper or on TV that was wrong, and you'd want to yell, 'Hey! Everybody! It's not true! Wait!' But nobody cares. They got their sound bites, their quotes, and they're done. But the damage is done. Always, the damage is done."
Smart's case was not particularly meaningful from a legal point of view. It set no groundbreaking precedents, tested no new scientific methods of gathering evidence. Rather, it had what producers of both news and fiction knew to be the delicious details of marketability. And the story broke at a time when the technology to deliver those details had ripened to match the public's huge appetite for true crime.
In an unprecedented coverage decision, Channel 9 aired the trial live every day, bumping advertisements and soap operas in favor of record-setting ratings.
"It couldn't have been scripted or cast or directed better if it had come out of Hollywood," said Jack Heath, the station's news director at the time. "In fact, the movie paled in comparison."
'A life of its own'
Coverage of the Smart story began like that of any local murder - locally. Gregory Smart's killing, on May 1, 1990, looked like the result of a robbery gone bad and was followed as such. A month later, three teenagers - Bill Flynn, Patrick "Pete" Randall and Vance Lattime - were arrested.
The story did not take off nationally until the police established that Pamela Smart had been having an affair with Bill Flynn, a student in the district where Smart worked in the SAU media center.
Feeding the story was the perception that Smart was Flynn's teacher. Smart was not a certified teacher, although she did work with Flynn on one or two extracurricular projects.
"It had sex, it had violence, it had youth, it had the older woman concept. It had the flavor that you see generally on daytime TV," said Mark Sisti, one of Smart's lawyers at the time. "Within about a week we were fairly sure it was getting more attention than it should have. It took on a life of its own."
By August, the nation was paying attention; by September, Hard Copy had paid a key witness, sophomore Cecelia Pierce, $1,000 for her interview on its show "Scandal at School: One Girl's Secret."
(By the end of the trial, Pierce would get an additional $300 from A Current Affair and $100,000 for a movie contract with Once Upon A Time productions. She was not the only one to cash in: One juror made recordings of her thoughts and tried to sell them to the defense attorneys for $25,000; another juror sold an article to the Boston Globe, reportedly for $15,000.)
Gregory Smart's parents appeared on Donahue. By the time jurors showed up at the Rockingham County Superior Court for the trial's opening day, they had a hard time finding parking spots because of all the satellite trucks. Reporters had arrived representing Italian, Australian and Japanese media.
According to Stephen Brill, who started Court TV, the trial's popularity was not surprising. "Trials are the most dramatic form of nonviolent combat we have," he said.
A line at 4:30 a.m.
As the case wore on, the most salacious details of Smart's life became common knowledge. It turned out she liked heavy metal music and was a Van Halen fan. The puppy her husband had given her was named Halen, and Smart allegedly asked Flynn and Randall not to kill Gregory Smart in front of the dog and not to get blood on the sofa.
She and Flynn had watched the steamy movie 91/2 Weeks and recreated some of the scenes in her bedroom. She had given him a picture of herself posing suggestively in a bikini - a photo that still can be found on "The Pamela Smart Resource Center" on the Internet.
The press gleefully contrasted these details with what they saw in court and commented profusely on the bows in Smart's hair and on her shoes, on her color-coordinated business suits and controlled demeanor. Headlines dubbed her "Ice Princess" and "Maiden of Metal" - a moniker she originally earned as host of a radio show at Florida State University.
Local residents were hooked, too. Michelle Franz ran the Seabrook Village Video store at the time. Suddenly 91/2 Weeks was a hot rental, she remembered. "We had a TV in the video store that showed movie reviews," she said. "People would come in and ask us to put the trial on instead. It was the topic of conversation. It became a part of people's lives."
Residents in Derry and on the Seacoast sat riveted to the coverage in beauty parlors and restaurants. "I heard of students taking time off from classes to watch," said Paul Maggiotto, who prosecuted the case along with Diane Nicolosi. "People watched the whole thing. I think it gave people a real education in the court process."
The Rockingham courthouse was small, and seating was limited. The court began to issue tickets - 30 a day - to accommodate the public. As the trial proceeded, spectators began to line up, sometimes as early as 4:30 on March mornings, to get a ticket for the 9:30 a.m. proceedings. "What can be better than this?" a Massachusetts man standing in line asked a reporter. "(Television) is nothing like being there."
At Winnacunnet High School, then-Superintendent Jim Weiss said, "there was a feeding frenzy from day one." He had been on the job for about a month when he looked out his window and saw two dozen police cars pull up to arrest Smart.
"My frame of reference was local papers, not The Washington Post and Paris Match and The London Times," he said. The district hired a media consultant to help teachers and administrators handle the press. Several reporters were so persistent they had to be thrown off school property.
Adding a layer to the media intrigue was the case's central character, Pamela Smart, whom many believed was herself a deft manipulator of the press. Not long after the murder, Smart issued a plea on Channel 9, asking for any information the public might have about her husband's murder.
Smart had a degree in communications and theater and aspired to be a television reporter. Her role model was - and is - CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, her mother said. During the initial investigation, Smart kept in touch with reporters and the police.
Once convicted, she gave her first interview to Primetime Live's Diane Sawyer.
Wojas said her daughter was tricked into that early Channel 9 appearance by Spencer, who came to their door saying he had information that Gregory Smart was involved with drugs. Pamela Smart agreed to the interview in an effort to dispel the drug story, which she said was false.
Author Joyce Maynard, who lived in Keene at the time, remembers seeing Smart's televised appeal. "It looked like every performance of every other grieving person on television," she said. "It was as if life was imitating television. . . . When I saw that, I didn't say, 'Oh, she did it,' but I did think, 'This is a television person.' "
Maynard eventually published To Die For, a novel about television culture inspired by the Smart case. The book was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman. In the book, the Smart-like character, Suzanne Maretto, is eventually killed by a hitman posing as an ABC producer.
Ken Englade, a true-crime writer who published the first book about the case, Deadly Lessons, also thought Pamela Smart and her mother worked the media. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and saw a "Free Pam Smart" bumper sticker on a car recently.
It probably got there thanks to Wojas, who began a nationwide campaign after her daughter's conviction. She organized a fund-raising cookout that drew supporters from as far away as Florida, and a Friends of Pamela Smart newsletter. Smart still gets so much mail that Wojas has to take it out of the prison for her because it was deemed a fire hazard. And donations from supporters help pay for the correspondence law courses Smart is taking.
The enormous publicity - more than 1,200 newspaper and magazine articles - meant the public at large began taking sides. People showed up at the courthouse with signs saying she was innocent. At Winnacunnet High School, the socioeconomic rift between students from "have" and "have-not" towns widened, said Weiss, the former superintendent; the kids involved with the murder were from Seabrook, one of the poorest towns in the district.
Smart's lawyers appealed the case, saying the jury could not help but be influenced by the avalanche of media coverage. The defense had tried to get a change of venue, and later asked Gray to sequester the jury, which he eventually did after the second day of deliberations.
"That poor kid didn't even have a chance to go to the bathroom without the cameras following," said Sisti. "It was an insult to the judicial system. That media attention couldn't have helped anyone. She was guilty before the trial started. They were sitting back, waiting, salivating for her 15-year-old lover to take the stand, like hungry wolves."
The Boston Herald advertised a call-in number for readers to register their guilty and not guilty votes, and published the results three days before the trial ended. Before the trial began, Channel 9 ran a half-hour special called Anatomy of a Murder.
"The publicity was rampant and it was negative," said Wojas. "So it was okay to come up with that kind of decision. Every day there were eight newspapers screaming her guilt."
Wojas believes it was impossible for even well-intentioned jurors not to be affected by the media coverage. A transcript from a tape made by one juror reads, "I feel like I'm really exposed to the press. . . . I mean, even before I go to scratch my nose or anything, I think about, 'Oh God, how many pictures are they going to get of me scratching my nose.' And so this has turned out to be a whole lot more stress than I have ever, ever imagined it could ever be."
Smart was found guilty after three days of deliberations.
When Smart reappeared in Gray's courtroom in 1997 for a hearing, he banned cameras from the courtroom. "Why? Because life is a learning process," he told a reporter.
In New Hampshire, press access is the judge's discretion, and some are more accepting of cameras than others. Although legal observers say no sweeping changes occurred in New Hampshire courts as a result of the Smart trial, they say lawyers and judges alike have thought twice about their dealings with the media since the case.
"Certainly it heightened awareness of the issue," said Ray Taylor, clerk at the Rockingham Superior Court. "I think it's in the back of people's minds."
Professor Albert Scherr of Franklin Pierce Law Center said New Hampshire attitudes about cameras in courtrooms have shifted since the early 1990s. "It's defined by people's reactions to O.J. Simpson. Prior to O.J., it was defined by Pam Smart," he said.
As for the media, they have moved on, too - although Smart still gets coverage in the National Enquirer, and producers from shows such as A&E Biography and Court TV still contact Wojas.
But Andrew Gully, managing director for news at the Boston Herald, said he would not now sanction the poll the paper ran then, when he was still a reporter. "It seems to me unfair to have people sounding off about whether she's guilty when the trial's still going on," he said.
Scherr said the Smart case "brought New Hampshire crime reporting into the electronic age," with mixed results. The media, in particular the TV media, began to pay more attention to trials, "and probably there was an improvement in coverage in the sense that more aspects of any particular case were looked at," he said. But that also has meant coverage "even if those aspects weren't there or particularly interesting. So it started to distort things," he said.
Englade said if Smart's case broke today it probably would not get the coverage it got then. "The 24-hour news cycle is something that didn't exist in Pam Smart's day," he said. "So this had a big impact." And his book, he added, would probably not have been written - and perhaps not the one by Stephen Sawicki, Teach Me to Kill, with the especially lurid cover.
"True crime is really in the toilet," he said. "O.J. killed it and JonBenet finished it off. Most of the big writers are getting out of it. The public has said, 'ho hum, another murder.' "
Nine years later, Wojas believes the press may have helped convict her daughter, whom she is still actively working to free. "Perhaps the media did have a part in putting her where she is," she said. "And perhaps the media can play a part in getting her out."