Posted Aug 01, 2014 09:50 am CDT
Before O.J., before Casey Anthony and even before CourtTV, there was Pamela Smart.
Smart, whose 1991 murder trial may be better remembered for its headline-grabbing details of sex, violence and power, was actually the defendant in the country’s first-ever fully televised trial. She was convicted of conspiracy to murder her husband, along with her then-teenage lover, and is serving a life sentence in a New York prison.
Now a new documentary examines the impact of the media on Smart’s trial and sentencing. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart will debut on HBO this month.
“On a very simplistic level it asks: [Was Smart’s] sentence fair?” Zagar says. “Our system is not about guilt or innocence but about reasonable doubt.” It is about knowing “whether we can put somebody away with a clear conscience, that every avenue has been explored,” he says.
Zagar became interested in making a documentary about the case because, since it was the first televised trial, there are large amounts of archival footage. Also, one juror recorded her personal thoughts as the trial progressed each day, providing outsiders with an intimate understanding of a trial from a juror’s perspective.
The documentary also reveals how the media-charged environment began long before the trial started. Television reporter Bill Spencer, formerly of WMUR in Manchester, New Hampshire, noted in the film that Smart attempted to produce his story, even going so far as to suggest that he use a shot of her looking at the top layer of her wedding cake that was being saved for her first anniversary.
Other archival footage of the trial’s participants shows them prepping for their 15 minutes of fame, including former Derry, New Hampshire, police detective Daniel Pelletier, who is seen repeating the line he said to Smart upon her arrest. Another witness gave numerous interviews and appeared on morning talk shows before the trial even began.
The documentary shows how the media became poison, Zagar says. “It poisoned everything around it. Captivated retraces how that poisoning happened.”
“The essential question of the film is why,” Zagar says. “The film is not about answers. The film is about questions. It is about asking the audience how they feel.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Their 15 Minutes of Fame: New documentary looks back at the Pamela Smart murder trial.”