we had less than 100 channels to watch
trials were reported using only drawings
judges didn’t have their own TV shows
“Reality TV” meant “The News”
teachers sleeping with their students was not commonplace
… and if a spouse wanted to kill their partner, it was major news, not just another 20/20, Dateline, or 48 Hours (that was the title of a movie!)
It was in May 1990 that the ironically named Pamela Smart, a high school audio-visual “specialist” -not officially a teacher- arranged to have her husband murdered by three hormonally peaked students.
She was young, blonde, and had conveniently had some cheesecake photos of herself taken in a bikini- they were for a beauty contest, not her young charges.
Peu importe ….
You may think you know this story if you’ve seen To Die For, the 1995 movie which starred Nicole Kidman and was based on the book of the crime by Joyce Maynard- yes, J.D. Salinger’s own jailbait. Maynard says she “got so into the story that [she] forget[s] what actually happened.”
It seems lots of people “forget what actually happened,” if they even know what happened in the first place.
This excellent documentary premiering tonight on HBO does reveal what did actually happen, but that doesn’t mean you’ll arrive at your own verdict regarding the guilt or innocence of Pamela Smart.
Sadly, many of the major characters in this story are deceased, but I think it takes close to three decades to realize the culture-changer that was this case: the first trial to be broadcast gavel-to-gavel, the trial that gave birth to Court TV, the trial that released the famewhore virus among not just legal eagles, but journalists and witnesses.
Bill Spencer, sporting overbaked pancake makeup in the documentary, is a fascinating character. A local TV reporter at the time the crime took place, he quickly realizes the potential of this case to be his ticket to the big-time. He wasn’t wrong to be ambitious, look what the O.J. Simpson trial did for Greta Van Susteren.
He appeared on all manner of talk shows, local and national, as the self-appointed expert on Pamela Smart and her case.
His local TV station even made a movie (the first of three) about the crime; it was broadcast two days before jury selection. “I’ve managed to tell everyone everything about this case before it went to trial,” he boasts.
The famewhore virus eventually infected Pamela’s best friend, Cecilia Pierce. She optioned her story to “Reality TV Producer” Stanley Brooks, a smarmy character uncovered by a P.I. interviewed in the movie. Brooks recently declared bankruptcy and never got to make the movie.
The movie that was made in the écume of the trial was Murder In New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story. The trial judge, Mark Ciavarella, played himself despite expressing a desire that he be portrayed by Clint Eastwood.
Smart herself seemed to enjoy the press attention during the trial. She was composed, wore tasteful makeup, and always made sure she had a bow in her hair. Guilty by appearance.
Every expert interviewed for this movie contributes something fascinating. Director Jeremiah Zagar made excellent choices in whom to interview, particularly a psychology professor who warns that once a narrative is set by the media, it is difficult to change. A trial is ultimately a battle of competing narratives. Chew on that while considering current events.
I’m not spoiling this movie by divulging the movie’s paramount revelation: Juror #13
The jury was not sequestered, and this female juror was frustrated that she wasn’t allowed to share her daily impressions with anyone. So she tape-recorded a daily diary of her thoughts to relieve her increasing frustrations with the case.
While it was a healthy choice psychologically, it was questionable legally- except she didn’t make the recordings expecting a book deal. Her insights are as funny as they are maddening.
I saw this movie this past March at its first screening at the True/False film festival. The director and producer, Lori Cheatle, whose husband worked on Pamela Smart’s website, held an extended Q & A session.
After forty-five minutes, I had to ask the question I was stunned no one else had yet asked:
How did you find out about Juror #13?
I expected an answer along the lines of they’d placed an ad in local papers asking for people who remembered/were linked to Ms. Smart and/or the trial to come forward, guaranteeing anonymity. Something inocuous.
Instead, Mr. Zagar looked straight at me with dead eyes and answered:
“I can’t tell you that.”
Silence. No one dared ask a follow up. The mundane Q & A picked right up where it had left off.
Pamela Smart is imprisoned at New York’s maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She will be eligible for parole on 99/99/9999.