The 1991 trial of a young woman named Pamela Smart was the first trial to be covered on TV, gavel-to-gavel. The case oozed with tabloid succulence: She was 22, pretty, and charged with conspiracy to commit murder with her lover and eventual triggerman, the sweet-faced, 15-year-old Billy Flynn. Brooke speaks to Jeremiah Zagar, the director of a new documentary film titled "Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart," about the role the media played in Smart's trial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A landmark moment for cameras and criminal justice occurred in 1991, the trial of a young woman named Pamela Smart, for the murder of her husband, Gregory Smart. The case oozed with tabloid succulence. She was 22, pretty, a media coordinator for several New Hampshire high schools, charged with conspiracy to commit murder with her lover and eventual triggerman, the sweet-faced 15-year-old, Billy Flynn. The media seized upon the juicy optics and took it to the court of public opinion.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: According to police, Pamela Smart convinced her teenaged lover to murder her husband.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Pamela Smart, offering to pay each teenager $1,000 for the murder of her husband.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Pamela Smart trial was the first to be covered on TV gavel-to-gavel, but the trial inspired much more imagery and ink, among them, the TV movie with Helen Hunt, “Playing Smart,” the novel by Joyce Maynard and the feature film inspired by the novel, starring Nicole Kidman, directed by Gus van Zandt.
[“TO DIE FOR” CLIP]:
PAMELA SMART (NICOLE KIDMAN): You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are, because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A new documentary film focusing on the coverage of the case, called, "Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart," premieres on HBO on Monday. Director Jeremiah Zagar says he wanted the film to look at the lookers, that is, the coverage and the news consumers, including the lawyers, the judge and the jury. He says Pamela Smart's case began just as the litigation- obsessed media machine we know today was ramping up.
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: It was the beginning of CNN. It was the beginning of Court TV. It was the beginning of all these cable news networks who needed to fill a 24-hour news cycle. WMUR, the local TV station, decided to cancel all the shows that were broadcast during the trial and broadcast only the trial. People were hungry for whatever they could hear about the Pamela Smart case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a local TV station became the Pamela Smart channel and, like the OJ trial that happened later, it created its own media stars. So tell me about WMUR reporter Bill Spencer. He actually plays himself in the Helen Hunt film.
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: Bill Spencer is a larger-than-life character. He considers himself a muckraker of sorts, and he's the guy that broke the story, ultimately. He’s the guy that got the first interview with Pam, and then he ran with it, and he was also being pushed really hard to keep going after the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Going after the story or going after her? I mean, was he part of the crowd that convicted her in advance of the verdict?
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: He was, and he felt like he had uncovered the fact of the case, before the police. And, as a result, he broadcast, two days before the jurors were even picked, a documentary that over and over again stated how guilty Pamela Smart was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about the venue for this trial and whether or not it was possible for Pamela Smart to get a fair trial.
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: I think, in this case, the media became a poison, and it poisoned every witness and it poisoned every moment of that trial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And part of your evidence for that comes from something extraordinary, the actual tapes that a juror made every night in her bathtub after each day's trial about what she herself was thinking. First of all, this juror said that they didn't give Pamela Smart a defense.
“JUROR NO. 13”: I, I felt like when they said that defense rests its case, I, I couldn’t it, I was like, no way! That’s not fair ‘cause I don’t believe she deserves that. And I think that the circus of the media was ridiculous - about 10 billion cameras 'chhk, chhk, chhk, chhk' going off and everybody’s taking billions of pictures. And I think it rots. I just think it rots.
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: I think in that tape there’s a lot of regret that you can hear in her voice, regret over the sentence Pamela Smart has received and regret over having delivered that guilty verdict. And I think what you're hearing there is her recounting what led up to that sentence and her justifying giving it to her. You know, she didn't get a defense, it’s not my fault.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She said that she wouldn't have convicted Pamela Smart, if she'd known that the sentence was going to be life in prison without parole.
“JUROR NO. 13”: I really believe that I would have hung that jury, ‘cause I was damn close to doing it anyway, had I known what this sentence was gonna be. I’m not responsible for what I was to consider as evidence. I had no control of evidence that was given. I believe there's so much that no one knows and will probably never know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But she also said that there was plenty of reasonable doubt, so why did she convict?
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: The truth is that “12 Angry Men” scenario, where Henry Fonda sits at the end of the table and convinces the 11 other jurors that there's reasonable doubt is a fantasy. In reality, when three jurors or less feel there's reasonable doubt, they’re swayed 90 percent of the time to the majority's opinion, like a schoolyard, like peer pressure. When there’s four, it decreases to about 50 percent. And ultimately, I think she was swayed. She looked at the evidence with those jurors and, you know, they wanted to go home.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you believe at the end of this process, that it would be better if there were no cameras in the courtroom?
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: Well no, not necessarily, because I think when you look at, you know, the lack of transparency in military trials, it’s troubling. And there is a need for transparency in the trial process. The problem is, is when the trial becomes sensationalized, commerce and justice begin to mix. And I think that's really problematic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's the solution?
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: I don't have solutions. I don’t have clear answers. And I think the film is attempting to bring up questions so that, ideally, you know, people involved in the justice system can make structures to make things more fair.
Now, one of the attorneys we talked to J. Albert Johnson, said the trial should have been stayed, and it should have been stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed, until it was no longer a story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wait until the controversy blew over? That could take decades, if you have people like Bill Spencer on the case.
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: Right, and that's the problem. And there's a desire for retribution in the public. And, therefore, it's very possible that a person who didn't commit the crime they’re convicted of is convicted of that crime. Until there's not a thirst for blood, it's very difficult in a sensationalized environment to find where the truth lies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where do you think the trial went most wrong for Pamela Smart?
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: It went wrong every step of the way. The young men who took plea-bargain deals, who actually committed this murder, were housed together and, therefore, able to get their stories straight. The young woman who was the key witness was under contract for $100,000 dollars for a movie deal. The media was sensationalizing every moment and every sound bite and every image that was recorded. The judge also got caught up in it. At the end of the trial he said he hoped that Clint Eastwood would play him in the movie. And that was sort of a joke, but it was emblematic of an environment that had been created. For that reason, she got a very unfair trial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think she did it?
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: I think the only people who know what happened is Pamela Smart and Bill Flynn. He says she told him to kill her husband. She says she never told him that. It's impossible to prove it either way.
What is clear is that this woman got an incredibly unfair trial. And what is clear is that her sentence is incredibly disproportionate, that she’ll spend the rest of her life in prison without the possibility of parole, which, by the way, Charles Manson has the possibility of parole. And these young men are about to get out. You know, they’re on work release, as we speak. And what is clear also is that there is a problem when we cease to question the systems of our government - our justice system, our political system, our media system. If anything, I hope that this film allows the audience to question more and to feel comfortable questioning, that what makes our system strong are the questions that we ask.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what's the question we should be asking of the media?
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: How are these images being shot? How are these images being edited? How are these images being condensed? How are these sound bites being condensed? What are they focusing on? What does it mean when they focus on the hairstyle of the defendant? What does it mean when, before they talk about the facts of the case, they talk about her composure? Are we creating a narrative that we would like this person to be? Or are we actually trying to understand who this person is and what they've done?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeremiah, thank you very much.
JEREMIAH ZAGAR: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeremiah Zager is the director of the new documentary, “Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart,” which premieres on HBO on August 18th.