“CAPTIVATED: THE TRIALS OF PAMELA SMART— A Small-Town Murder, A High Profile Crime

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“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart”

A Small-Town Murder, A High Profile Crime

Amos Lassen

The trial of Pamela Smart was the first televised court case and it rattled the consciousness of this country. We might actually consider the case to be the beginning of reality television. The trial dealt with sex, drugs, betrayal, and murder and it inspired 20 years of television shows, books, plays, and movies, including “To Die For” starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Gus Van Sant.

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In 1990, 21-year-old Pamela Smart was arrested for plotting the murder of her husband, which was committed by three teens, one of whom Smart had an affair with.  “Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” examines the media circus around the case and how it likely influenced public opinion of Pamela Smart.

In theory, we are told that the criminal justice system is based around the presumption of innocence, until proven guilty in the court of law.  However, that does not make a very good news story.  What makes a compelling story is one about a widow who seduces an impressionable teenager to commit a murder for her.  It sounds like a plot for film noir.  Even though Pamela Smart was far from an innocent person, at the very least she was guilty of having a relationship with a minor, the film makes it quite apparent that the media painted a picture of her, which likely influenced the result of her trial.

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Using captivated breaks down Pamela Smart’s trial and the help of a private audio log by “Juror #13,” (one of only three jurors to believe that Pamela Smart was not guilty).  To keep with film’s theme of the media circus around the case, the film places TVs playing the trial in a number of different locations, including the opening shot of the TV on a stage. The film is a very captivating examination of the media influence on this famous case.

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. Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar focuses on how the intense media coverage completely manipulated the case that sealed Pamela’s fate.

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The three teenage boys and another (as an accomplice) responsible for actually killing Smart’s husband and 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 charged with first-degree murder. The teens would end up serving a fixed time sentence before being freed, where she would face life imprisonment without parole and this is just one of the many disturbing facts that Zagar’s documentary uncovered.

One of the worse ones that we learned about at the trial was about Cecilia Pierce, Smart’s teenage intern, had been pressured to being a witness and had been fitted with a ‘wire’.  The tapes that she made whilst talking to Smart were almost completely unintelligible but the Prosecution had them greatly enhanced without the involvement of a licensed audiologist that was offered by the defense. This was very probably another way to insure Smart’s guilt yet it made Pierce into a media star who received $100,000 for her life story.

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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 trial judge refused to sequester the jury who went home every night to absorb this constant and ceaseless onslaught of news. 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 calling for Smart’s blood.

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After a speedy 18-day trial, Smart was convicted and was taken 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 governor of Massachusetts. 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.  A second movie about the case, “To Die For, was made but it was the earlier TV film that had the most effect. One of the teenagers who had accompanied the murderers that fatal night was set to reconfirm his original statement that the Police had suppressed as it had supported Smart’s claims of innocence, but he reneged on this and all he could remember was every word of was the fictional television movie version of the things.

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Director Zagar tries his best to get beyond the travesty of justice that he present here and in effect puts the media on trial for its coverage. What we actually has done is add just more speculation and opinion. 

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