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Katy Burns: Pam Smart murder case is revisited in a new HBO documentary

Last modified: 8/17/2014 1:26:26 AM
Last month’s lurid murder trial over in Dover that seemed to transfix the WMUR news editors (if not the station’s long-suffering viewers) was really just incredibly sad, not memorable.

On the other hand, the trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995 was a pretty gripping unspooling of a tale of human passions gone awry, and the millions who tuned in to it every day won’t forget the tawdry spectacle.

But for sheer soap opera drama, I think my fellow Granite Staters will agree that it’s impossible to top the 1991 murder trial of Pamela Wojas Smart right here in little old New Hampshire.

And now Pam Smart is back!

Well, she’s not really back. She’s still in the hoosegow, locked up tightly in a New York State prison. And when we wisely sentence people to life without parole, it is generally assumed they will go away and stop intruding on the lives of decent people. That’s the beauty of life without parole.

But in the case of Pam Smart, we didn’t consider HBO, which inexplicably feels that we should relive that 23-year-old courtroom drama. Thus Monday it’s presenting Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart.

And yes, that’s “Trials,” plural, presumably as in “tribulations.” It is said that the film offers a sympathetic portrait of the then 23-year-old Winnacunnet High School media coordinator and all she has gone through since she was convicted of persuading her 15-year-old student lover to kill her husband of less than a year because in a divorce she’d have lost her condo, her furniture and her little shih tzu.

No doubt all dog lovers can sympathize.

In fact, Smart’s solicitude for the dog was truly amazing. Particularly when compared with her sort of total lack of solicitude for her soon-to-be-late husband, Gregory. According to testimony, she demanded that the assassins not shoot Greg in front of the tiny dog – dubbed Halen after Pam’s favorite rock group, Van Halen – lest the beast be traumatized.

She also insisted that Greg be shot rather than stabbed to minimize bloodstains on her white leather furniture. Somehow you have to admire Pam’s ability to concentrate on niceties of decorating when plotting the death of her inconvenient husband.

It was that sort of detail that made the whole trial – not to mention everything leading up to the trial – so captivating to Granite Staters with way too much time on their hands. Including, I happily admit, me.

We were all glued to our TVs for the three-week trial, which WMUR considerately covered not only with courtroom footage during the day but with a dandy little summary each night for people whose jobs inconveniently interfered with their daytime TV watching.

And now, in the HBO special, all the characters, plot twists and salacious details that so riveted us in 1991 are back, slickly packaged, so that we can relive the highlights without all the boring trial details that dragged the spectacle out 23 years ago.

Re-meet Billy Flynn, Pam’s 15-year-old paramour, who told the court that he’d been a virgin until Pamela seduced him with a strip dance while the two of them watched the steamy flick 9½ Weeks on her bedroom television. (It’s not clear whether that was before or after she’d sent him torrid love letters and photos of herself posing provocatively in a tiny bikini.)

After the seduction she repeatedly insisted to her young lover that they could “never be together” unless he killed her husband. The condo, the furniture and the little dog were at stake. Plus – not to be sneezed at – a $140,000 insurance policy on Greg’s life.

Get to know, again, Billy’s friends – Pete Randall, J.R. Lattime and Raymond Fowler, who pitched in to help him do the deed. They were, a lot of the condescending contemporary commentary made clear, sort of other-side-of-the-tracks kids, not at all like the happily bourgeois Pam (which Smart herself preferred to spell “Pame”).

Also back is Cecilia Pierce, another teenager who was enticed into Pam’s presumably sophisticated orbit, who knew about the plot beforehand and who after the fact wore a wire for obscenity-filled conversations with Smart that pretty conclusively proved the adult woman’s complicity in the murder.

Add to the cast of characters Judge Douglas Gray, who opened his courtroom to the media and then did his best to play ringleader for the circus he’d unwittingly set into motion.

And Bill Spencer, the ubiquitous WMUR reporter whose telephone number seemed to have found its way onto Pamela Smart’s speed dial, or whatever the equivalent was back in the technologically primitive days of 1990. Yes, he too is front and center in the HBO documentary.

We’re also sure to see a critical player in the Pam Smart trial, then-Assistant Attorney General Paul Maggiotto, who became a trial lawyer rock star with his masterful cross-examination of the defendant, who until that time had certainly made it clear that she thought she was the smartest person in the room.

She wasn’t, as Maggiotto proved when he succeeded in shredding Smart’s carefully rehearsed story. She repeatedly interrupted him, her testimony becoming ever more contradictory and downright incoherent. As she stumbled, she blamed her confusion on depression, on medication, on – I’m not kidding – the sad death of her young husband.

Later, at the end of a brilliant hour-plus closing argument, Maggiotto delivered a devastating conclusion: “This woman was counting from day one (that) if this case ever came to court, she could put herself on the stand with her background, with her intelligence, with her ability to answer questions, and pull one over on you, ladies and gentlemen.”

The jury didn’t follow Pam’s plan. After due deliberation, the jury found her guilty, and the judge promptly sentenced her to life without the possibility of parole.

And the world – with the understandable exception of Pam’s mother and the less understandable exception of a small band of self-styled Pam acolytes, who are convinced that there was a frightful miscarriage of justice – is fine with the jury verdict.

Time has moved on. The three young men who helped Billy Flynn have been released from prison, and Flynn himself has been moved to a minimum security prison in Maine as part of a work-release program.

The case resulted in three books and two films, one a made-for-TV movie with Helen Hunt and the other a general release film, To Die For, with Nicole Kidman. And now, of course, we can relive it all in tomorrow’s HBO special.

If you don’t have time to watch, I think Amanda Milkovits of Foster’s Daily Democrat, who wrote a highly readable and detailed recounting of the Pamela Smart trial on its 10th anniversary, succinctly summarized the basic story: “Girl seduces boy. Girl threatens to leave boy, unless he kills her husband. Boy kills husband.”

But I’m going to be tuning into the HBO show. It seems the least I can do after devoting so much time to the lurid saga 23 years ago.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)


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