In 1990 in a small New England town Pamela Smart, an attractive blond sexpot teacher who was having an affair with one of her students, was accused of plotting her husband’s murder. This rather scandalous cause celebre was the first ever trial to be televised and this new HBO documentary from filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar focuses on how the intense media coverage completely manipulated the case that sealed Pamela’s fate.
The three teenage boys responsible for actually killing Mr Smart were cajoled by the Authorities into ‘plea bargaining’ where, if they gave evidence at Pamela Smart’s trial, they would only be charged with 2nd Degree murder. Smart however, who was not present when the actual deed was done, was still charged with 1st Degree murder. They would end up serving a fixed time sentence before being freed, where she would face life imprisonment without Parole. It was one of the many disturbing facts that Zagar’s documentary uncovered.
One of the worse ones that emerged at the trial was how Smart’s teenage intern Cecelia Pierce who had been coerced to being a witness had been fitted with a ‘wire’. The tapes she made whilst talking to Smart were almost completely unintelligible but the Prosecution had them greatly enhanced without the involvement of a licensed audiologist the Defence Team proffered. This may have been yet another nail in Smart’s coffin but it made a media star out of Pierce who also pocketed $100000 for her life story.
Two days before the Trial even started Smarts story was turned into TV movie starring Helen Hunt with the local newspaper reporter playing himself. Despite this and the daily deluge of coverage by a hostile media that had already convicted Smart in newsprint and on air, the Trial Judge still refused to sequester the Jury, and so they went home every night to absorb this ceaseless onslaught of broadcasting. Never before had the media been so instrumental in shaping how the American public learned about a small-town murder case, and they had them baying for blood. Pamela’s that is.
After a speedy 18-day trial, Smart was convicted and was whisked away to the Bedford Correctional Facility in New York for being an accomplice to first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering. She will never ever be released save for a personal pardon from the Massachusetts Governor. Each of the young men involved in the case received lesser sentences, two have already been released and the other two are up for parole in 2015.
There’s has been another movie based on the story starring Nicole Kidman called ‘To Die For’ but it was the earlier TV one that had the most effect. One of the teenagers who had accompanied the murderers that fatal night was set to re-confirm his original statement that the Police had suppressed as it had supported Smart’s claims of innocence, but he now reneged on this and all he could remember ….word by word…. was the fictional movie version of the things!
Zeger tries his best to get beyond what he presents as a travesty of justice and in effect puts the media on trial for its coverage. Inevitably whilst he does this, he is in fact adding yet another layer of speculation and opinion making which maybe more even handed than in the past but it is still yet just another case media manipulation.
This debut documentary of Zeger’s will be shown on HBO TV in the US later this year.