'Media circus' atmosphere aggravated case

By: Craig Lyons

Posted: 4/20/06

© Copyright 2007, Keene Equinox

Sex, lies, murder and heavy metal music were all pieces feeding a media frenzy in the Pam Smart case.

In the early 1990s the Pam Smart murder case was all consuming in the local and national media. The case was scrutinized and tried on the front pages of newspapers in New Hampshire, the New England region and beyond.

"It was a soap opera, a reality show, in a small town, in a small state. It poisoned the judiciary, the jury and the entire community," said Eleanor Pam, academic mentor and spokesperson for Smart. "This resonated through the years."

Sculpting an Ice Princess

"Well Pam, I've got good news and I've got bad news," said Derry Detective Daniel Pelletiere on Aug. 2, 1990 in her Winnacunnet High School office. "The good news is we've solved the murder of your husband." Pelletiere then added the bad news was that Smart was then going to be arrested as the primary suspect in her husband's death.

It was clear the media had been tipped off to the arrest, considering the large showing of news outlets at the high school, according to Mark Sisti, her defense lawyer she'd retained prior to the arrest. Smart's demonization at the hands of the media began that day as the image of her in handcuffs being walked to the police car was plastered on the front pages of major New England papers.

The Eagle-Tribune read, "Their wedding song said they would be always and forever; but forever came too soon."

"Affidavit: She did it for the furniture, dog and place to live," read Foster's Daily Democrat.

Other headlines on Aug. 2, 1990 included, "Teacher charged with helping student murder her husband; her alleged teen lover pulled the trigger." (Lawrence Eagle-Tribune.)

"Love affair with teen led Smart to plan murder," read the Derry News on Aug. 8, 1990.

According to an article analysis prepared by the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office, there was an average of seven articles, in New Hampshire newspapers, to one article per day from Aug. 2 to Aug. 24.

Another analysis conducted by lawyer J. Albert Johnson during Smart's appeals process found that during August 1990 there was a total of 115 articles published in the local media and 14 in the national media.

"It was the most exposed case at that time," said Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire attorney general. "That case had a lot of appeal to the media and the public."

With an attractive 22-year-old teacher, four teenagers, insurance money, one affair and one murder, the media found itself a delectable mixture to fuel the front pages. Despite her undergraduate degree in communication, Smart found herself the target of front pages and camera lights rather than producing them.

The Rising Story Count

In the ensuing media coverage, newspapers held tight to the lurid details lust, greed and murder coming out of the investigation and pretrial preparation.

By the time the trial began, there had been approximately 417 articles published in the state media and 57 in the national media, according to Johnson's analysis that qualified that not all articles from May-July of 1990 were included.

Meanwhile, the analysis prepared by the N.H. Attorney General's office found 319 articles published from Smart's arrest to Feb 14, 1991.

"Mrs. Smart denied bail; State: Widow secretly taped in incriminating conversation," said the front page on the Manchester Union Leader on Sept.19, 1990.

"Smart wanted witness killed, police say," read the Eagle-Tribune on Jan. 5, 1991.

The soap opera details of the case gradually captured the focus of the national media as the trial date of March 2, 1991 inched closer. "Steamy charges of sex and death rock high school; Teacher, three students tied to killing," read the Arizona Republic on Feb. 17, 1991.

The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Post, Time Magazine and Newsweek Magazine all ran stories before and during the trial.

When the trial started on March 2, 1991, media from around the world swarmed the courthouse. As details poured out of the case poured out of the courthouse, a larger media following began to envelop Rockingham County.

Lights, Camera, Action

The trial was run as a live feed by local cable stations, a first for the state of New Hampshire. Before the days of the O.J. Simpson trial and the Scott Peterson trial, people around New Hampshire and the country were glued to the screen as the trial unfolded.

"From what I'm told, everyone in New Hampshire was riveted," said Paul Maggiotto, the trial's chief prosecutor for the attorney general of New Hampshire.

In many newspapers, the circus surrounding the trial could be foreseen. "Smart trial begins Tuesday, heavy publicity expected" read the Union Leader on Feb 15, 1991.

Other regional papers reported the "Media descend on the county courthouse" and "Media crowd in cramped courtroom."

While Judge Douglas Gray saw the media flocking to the Rockingham County courthouse, he did not grant a chance for a change of venue or sequestering the jury.

"It was shameful the way the media wasn't controlled," said Sisti. "It was affecting witnesses. It was affecting my client and may have affected the jury."

"It was so bad at one point, Pam was attempting to go to the bathroom and followed into the bathroom by a reporter from CNN," said Sisti.

Maggioto said the big fanfare was walking up to the courthouse. He said he also recalled walking up to the courthouse and the camera clicking as a bit annoying as the trial moved forward.

As coverage continued during the trial, the case's more lurid details were emphasized by the media. The coverage appears to have tapped every tawdry fantasy of their readers and painted it across their front pages.

"Trial points teacher as seductress, victim's spouse slain in black widow case," read the Arizona Republic on March 6, 1991.

"The media was talking it up as a hot for teacher deal," said Sisti.

Despite the coverage calling Smart a teacher, that was not her position at Winnacunnet High School. The media played up the taboo of a teacher and student relationship.

"They called her a teacher," said Linda Wojas, Smart's mother. "She was never a teacher."

Smart was a media services director for the school district, according to Wojas.

"She was not a Winnacunnet employee but an SAU 21 district employee," added Wojas. "The media never clarified she wasn't a teacher."

The issue of whether Smart was a teacher or not was never directly addressed in the media, and clarification can still be only found intermittently in the still ongoing coverage of her case.

Bathing suit pictures

On March 5, 1991 photos of Smart in a bathing suit posing in provocative ways were introduced as trial evidence with Karen Knight's testimony. The photos ran on front pages, furthering the growing stereotype of Smart.

Knight owned and worked at a one hour photo developing shop. She testified that Bill Flynn, Smart's teenage lover and self-confessed triggerman brought a roll of film containing the photos into her shop for developing. When developing the film, Knight made nine duplicates off the roll of film.

"On some of these they're a little dark," said Knight explaining why she made the duplicates. "On others, part of the disc carrier and it also could be the fact if I was printing the disc and the phone rang, I would automatically reprint whatever frame I was on."

In an exclusive prison interview with Smart, she said there was nothing amiss with the photos. She said her originals are still with her belongings outside of prison and she was first made aware of the duplicates while in jail.

Smart said Sisti brought the photos to her cell and asked her to explain them.

Contrary to Knight's testimony, Smart said the photos were taken with her friend Tracy Paris. The shots were taken because Paris wanted a modeling job at a Manchester, N.H. bridal boutique looking for petite models, but did not want to do it alone, according to Smart.

Smart added she dropped the photos off herself at Knight's shop.

The film included half pictures of Smart and the other half of Paris, according to Smart. Knight also testified that only half of the film was pictures of Smart.

Teenage Lover Testifies:

As the days of the trial passed, it was merely a set up for the main act of the trial, Flynn's testimony, which only furthered the media script of passion and murder. Folllowing the testimony came some of the most sensational media coverage.

"Smart's teen killer recounts sex romp," read the Boston Herald on March 12, 1991. On the same day, the Eagle-Tribune said, "Murder plot began with striptease and sex."

As the trial reached a close, headlines continued to paint a soap opera like tale of the court proceedings. Front pages continued to be dedicated to coverage with headlines like, "Cold as ice," "Metal maiden couldn't shed a tear" and "Maiden of metal enjoys her courthouse tango."

Smart earned the label of the Ice Princess during the course of the trial for her seemingly cold demeanor.

As each day of the trial unfolded, family members could no longer recognize the woman being portrayed as the Ice Princess.

Smart herself awknowledged in a prison interview that her emotionless demeanor worked against public perception of her. However, she added that she was frankly more angry than sad during the trial's proceedings.

"I don't know who that person is the media portrays," said Wojas.

Media attention on the trial had hit epic scales by the time the verdict was delivered. Sisti pointed to some of the international media coverage from the BBC, Japan, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

After the verdict was delivered, the Manchester Union Leader emblazoned, "Guilty, Guilty, Guilty" on its front page.

Approximately 1,192 articles were published from May 1990 to March 1991, according to Johnson's media analysis. Often, the amount of media coverage of a trial produces its own impact.

The media power to create a certain perception is a familiar concept to Raymond Fowler, who spent 14 years in and out of prison for riding in the car that night with Flynn, Patrick Randall and Vance Lattime Jr.

"The media can either help you or kill you," said Fowler.

Smart was sentenced to life without the chance of parole following the trial.

"I do blame the media for a lot of this," said Wojas. "They had a part in this."

In the wake of the trial, stories of the sensational seeped into other forms of the media such as true crime novels and the film "Murder in New Hampshire," which kicked off the career of actress Helen Hunt. Smart continued to be painted as the "Seductress Teacher" and the "Ice Princess" in the media.

What Difference Does Time Make?:

Towards the end of Governor Craig Benson's term, Smart submitted her petition for commutation. Through a grueling series of denied appeals and 13 years after her trial, Smart filed for the chance to receive a hearing in front of the Governor and Executive Council.

As the petition circulated through the Attorney General's office, coverage stayed along the lines of the submission of the request.

Following the submission of the petition, the Portsmouth Herald published a prison interview with Smart on Feb. 22, 2004. The story written by Elizabeth Dinan was compiled without the use of pen and paper and compiled from memory, according to an editor's note.

"It was exploitive and filled with errors," said Eleanor Pam, academic mentor and spokesperson for Smart. "The piece was designed to hurt Pam Smart."

The biggest error, according to Pam, was Smart was wearing brown slacks. According to Pam, Smart would not have been able to enter the visitor's room after passing corrections officers in clothes other than the required attire.

"Every inmate has to wear one piece of green clothing. Green jumper, green pants, or a green skirt," said Wojas. "Prisoners can wear their own top with the skirt, pants, or a blouse under the jumper."

Smart felt a reaction to the article from within the walls of Bedford Hills correctional Facility.

"The prison tossed her cell looking for civilian clothes," said Pam.

Another inaccuracy was the manner in which Dinan entered the prison.

"Pam never advised Dinan on how to circumvent the prison authorities," said Pam. "She has no written communication, spoken on the phone and Pam had never met her."

Although, Smart had no previous contact with Dinan, Wojas helped to set up the interview.

"I was a sap. I thought she (Dinan) was friendly," added Wojas.

Smart's reaction to the story, according to Wojas: "She thinks the story will make the councilors vote no."

New Hampshire Governor John Lynch granted a hearing in front of the Executive Council for July 13, 2005. As the date approached, several Executive Councilors and the Governor made comments to the media and said they would deny Smart a commutation hearing.

Headlines read, "Burton; No chance for Pam." (Union Leader 7/13/05)

"Lynch to fight Smart pardon," read the Union Leader on July 9, 2005.

"They're prejudging her again. Calling it a pardon," said Wojas. "Why? Because it sells."

Smart was not applying for a pardon but a commutation or sentence reduction.

"The implication was that she was looking to be immediately released," said Pam.

Spokesperson Pam added Smart was not looking for an immediate release but instead looking to get her sentence shortened. "[Pam was] looking for the possibility she could someday be paroled," said Pam. "She just wanted to put some hope in the sentence."

As the coverage following the meeting of the Executive Council dwindled down, Smart's name would soon again be found in the media.

Recently, Smart has appeared in two major outlets, a Current Affair and Rita Cosby Live and Direct.

While the press coverage of Smart's case still wavered between the sensational and the fair, a middle ground was found in nationally syndicated programs. Going against the grain, Smart's portrayal in the media moved away from tradition fashion in two recent TV programs.

First, Smart was featured on A Current Affair, and then several weeks later featured on Rita Cosby Live and Direct. Both were live from prison interviews with Smart.

The reaction from Smart's family and friends was a pleased one with the shows failing to pander to the stereotype of Smart.

"There was no name calling, no sleazy photos," said Pam. "There was an openness to explore the possibility of her innocence."

Neither show used photos displaying Smart in a negative light, according to Pam.

"There's a willingness to stay with the case," said Pam.

Both programs still referred to Smart as a teacher, despite efforts to erase the title from the language associated with Smart.

"Pam directly said to them, I'm not a teacher. [Teacher] is so engrained," said Pam. "Certain stereotypes are hard to change, but we're getting there."

Pam added she had sent a letter to Rita Cosby asking the misnomer be corrected.

"I feel they were fair and not confrontational. I'm cynical about the media but I was appreciative," said Wojas. "Maybe people are starting to see that things never added up."

As more trials become the object of affection for media outlets, Smart's name still resonates in the minds of the people of New Hampshire and throughout the region.

After being crowned the "Ice Princess" and demonized by the media, Smart and Pam are working to use the media to help their cause.

"The media put her in prison, hopefully the media will get her out of prison," said Pam. "They will finally perceive the truth of the circumstances."

© Copyright 2007 Keene Equinox