Before O.J., it was the trial of the century
By Amanda Milkovits, Staff Writer
Two of the country’s most sensational murder trials are separated by four years and 3,000 miles.
On the surface, the Pamela Smart trial couldn’t be more different than the O.J. Simpson case. One involved a group of white teen-agers from a blue-collar town; the other centered on a wealthy, famous black man. One ended in a conviction, the other in an acquittal.
The connection is an attractive blonde. An insatiable press. Accused killers who said they were only trying to conduct their own investigation. (Even "OJ" — Pamela Smart and some of the teen-agers involved in the murder were working together on an orange juice commercial.)
And a public that still remembers where they were when it all happened.
Nothing in New Hampshire’s history had prepared the court for a case like this one. This was the Trial of the Century four years before O.J. took the famous ride in his white Ford Bronco.
"I think the case was blown way out of proportion by the news media," said former Derry Police Capt. Loring Jackson, who supervised the investigation of the case. "They seized on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. ... To me, the press was nothing but a royal pain in the ass, and you can quote me on that."
Smart’s trial was the first to be broadcast live from start to finish. Yet why it attracted so much attention is something the now-retired judge Douglas Gray says he will never understand. After seeing that trial, New Hampshire courts reduced access to live television coverage.
"I wouldn’t have allowed live coverage again," Gray said in a telephone interview from Florida. "It was distracting. It was something else you had to worry about."
During the Smart trial at the old Rockingham County Superior Court in Exeter, all the parking spaces were filled by press and spectators before the court opened. Latecomers (that is, those who arrived after 7 a.m.) usually found themselves hiking in from parking lots about a quarter of a mile away.
Spectators and reporters drew tickets based on first-come, first-served to get into the courtroom. The unlucky ones spilled out into an adjoining room and watched the proceedings on a television perched on top of a Pepsi machine.
That’s the reason for the media room in the new Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood, said former Sheriff Wayne Vetter. Instead of filling the courtroom, reporters now watch the proceedings on camera in the separate media room.
Smart still maintains that the media frenzy and bias against her prevented a fair trial. "I think everybody in that case made an effort to placate the media for some reason," said her defense lawyer Mark Sisti. "It’s a shame that justice took a back seat."
Smart, who’d wanted to be the next Barbara Walters, now had her name and face plastered on every media outlet — as the ruthless mastermind behind her husband’s murder.
She was dubbed "the despicable little tart with the bow in her hair" by Mike Barnicle on Channel 5’s "Chronicle."
Her story was a natural for "Hard Copy," which produced several episodes during the trial. It was a grabber for CNN and all the major networks. It led to paperback books, such as "Teach Me to Kill" and "Deadly Lessons," and countless headlines in newspapers across the country. Months after the trial ended, she was played by Helen Hunt in the smarmy TV movie "Murder in New Hampshire," and by Nicole Kidman in the 1995 movie "To Die For," from the Joyce Maynard novel loosely based on the murder.
The Smart trial led then-Gov. Judd Gregg to urge passage of a law to prevent convicted murderers from profiting from their story. That didn’t apply to the witnesses.
Sixteen-year-old Cecelia Pierce, the former intern who wore a wire to tape the damning conversations with Pamela, signed a movie contract for $100,000 for her story.
Greg Smart’s best friend Brian Washburn admitted to Assistant Attorney General Diane Nicolosi that he’d hired a lawyer to accept checks and movie contracts buying the rights to his story.
"So it’s OK to sign a contract and make money off your best friend?" Nicolosi asked Washburn.
"Everybody else is," he retorted.