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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pam Smart trial enthralls NH still

Telegraph Editorial

Some murder trials just won’t go away.

Twenty-three years ago, Pam Smart, a media coordinator at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, was convicted of orchestrating the killing of her husband, Gregory Smart, by four high school students, one of whom was her lover. ...

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Some murder trials just won’t go away.

Twenty-three years ago, Pam Smart, a media coordinator at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, was convicted of orchestrating the killing of her husband, Gregory Smart, by four high school students, one of whom was her lover.

The trial remains the most publicized legal event in state history. It was broadcast live on WMUR, and reporters packed the last two rows of the Rockingham County courtroom to suck up every moment. On the circus-like atmosphere scale it falls short of the O.J. Simpson trial – which occurred four years later – but perhaps not by much. On the day her sentence was handed down, one TV tabloid show – it may have been “Hard Copy” – led off the show with a headline that screamed, “Detention for life!”

Over the years, the trial has been the focus of numerous books, television programs and movies. The next one comes Monday night, when HBO airs “Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart,” a documentary that questions whether all the hoopla surrounding the trial created an unfair image of Smart and unleashed societal forces that prevented her from receiving a fair trial.

“Captivated reexamines the case, shedding new light on its facts and personalities while exposing the dangers of allowing the media to shape a verdict before due process is complete,” touts HBO’s promotional material.

One of the new wrinkles offered in the documentary is previously unknown comments from one of the jurors who kept an audio journal during the trial in which she describes, “There were about 10 billion cameras going off – ‘chhk, chhk, chhk,’ everyone taking billions of pictures. I just think it rots. I just think it rots.”

There is no doubt that the intense media coverage affected the trial, and Justice Douglas Gray’s questionable decision not to sequester jurors left them vulnerable to media influence. But, even taking those factors into consideration, that doesn’t mean the jury reached the wrong conclusion.

Much of the evidence presented was not much more than “he said-she said” kind of stuff: two differing versions of events from which the truth was impossible to determine.

On one hand, killer Billy Flynn, a 15-year-old boy in love with his teacher, said he killed Greg Smart at Pam’s urging, so he could be with her.

On the other side, Pam said Flynn acted independently and without her knowledge. She admitted that the affair with Flynn was a mistake and that there were problems with her marriage, but that she would have never had her husband killed.

If that’s all there was, Pam Smart probably would have walked. But there was more. There were audio tapes secretly recorded by Smart’s friend, high school student Cecilia Pierce. The tapes painted a radically different image of Smart than the one that was offered by her defense.

While she never specifically admitted to conspiring with Flynn, her comments clearly indicated she had prior knowledge of the murder. Her defense was that she was simply playing along to get information for herself – but the profanity-laced diatribes belied her profession of good intentions.

Of all of Smart’s taped statements, the one that stands out still was when Pierce asked Smart what she would do if getaway driver Vance “J.R.” Lattime Jr. told police that Smart had engineered the murder.

“Well, so then I’ll have to say, “No, I didn’t” and then they’re either gonna believe me, or they are gonna believe J.R. – 16 years old in the slammer. And then who (will they believe)? Me, with a professional reputation – and, of course, that I teach. You know, that’s the thing. They are going to believe me.”

Not so much, as it turned out.

Because the essence of those words hardly required a media frenzy to get the point across.