“CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart”— Sex, Drugs and Betrayal

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“CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart”

Sex, Drugs and Betrayal

Amos Lassen

The trial of Pamela Smart was the first fully televised court case. In 1990 in a small New England town Pamela Smart, an attractive blond teacher was having an affair with one of her students. She was  accused of plotting her husband’s murder. Jeremiah Zagar in this new documentary looks at how the media coverage manipulated the case and sealed Pamela’s fate. The Pamela Smart trial shook the consciousness of America. America tuned in and reality TV was born with this case. The trial, the non-stop media attention surrounding it, and the events that caused it have inspired over 20 years of television, books, plays, and movies.

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It seems that it was not enough that Smart slept with a student but she also talked that student into murdering her husband. Here was fodder for a pop culture phenomenon that lost the truth of who Smart was and what actually happened. “Captivated” closely examines the impact of the media frenzy but manages to steers clear of giving an opinion on the guilt or innocence of Smart. It provides a penetrating indictment of  the public’s guilt in feeding the news sharks. It’s an incredibly relevant discussion in our reality television obsessed age.

Zagar was given surprising access to the life-without-parole prisoner Smart and most of the major players surrounding the trial and media circus. He discovered some intriguing new revelations and perspectives. Zagar began making this film with the hope to shifting perceptions on Smart. The problem is that no matter how poorly Smart was treated at the time or how exaggerated the story became in the media, or how guilty her teenage associates seemed to be, some of the evidence contradicts it all and it’s very hard all these years later to find the truth. There’s no question that Pamela Smart’s trial was far from fair yet her innocence remains questionable and when Zagar hits a dead end, he changes his focus to blaming the preconceptions of his viewers. The filmmaker isn’t necessarily wrong on all counts, but his ending just seems to be cheap and inappropriate. Nonetheless, there’s still a great deal to enjoy and admire about the film but be prepared to become frustrated.

The film rewinds the facts. It probes whether the media’s insatiable storytelling combined with Pamela Smart’s demeanor and naiveté settled the verdict long before the case was even argued in court. We begin to question everything we’re told as the line between news and entertainment continues to blur. The authorities talked the three teenage boys who were responsible for actually killing Smart’s husband into ‘plea bargaining’. They were told that if they gave evidence at Pamela Smart’s trial, they would only be charged with 2nd Degree murder.  Smart, who however, who was not present when the actual murder took place, was still charged with First Degree murder. The boys would end up serving a fixed time sentence before being freed, where she would face life imprisonment without parole. This is just one of the many disturbing facts that Zagar’s documentary uncovered.

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Another example of what we learn in the film is Smart’s teenage intern, Cecelia Pierce, who had been coerced to being a witness had been fitted with a ‘wire’.  The tapes she made while she was talking to Smart were almost completely unintelligible but the prosecution had them greatly enhanced without the involvement of a licensed audiologist that the defense offered to provide. This made a media star out of Pierce who also pocketed $100,000 for her life story and it further locked Smart in prison.

Two days before the trial even started Smart’s 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 Judge refused to sequester the jury and they went home every night and heard broadcast after broadcast. Never before had the media been so instrumental in shaping how the American public learned about a small-town murder case, and they yelled for Smart’s blood.

It took only eighteen days to convict Smart and put her in 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 unless she receives 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 have been two movies based on the story. One stars Nicole Kidman— ‘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. Zegar 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. In doing this, he is in fact adding yet another layer of speculation and opinion making. Here is another case of media manipulation.

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