HBO documentary explores impact of televised coverage
By Kyle Stucker
Hampton Union, August 17, 2014
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
HAMPTON — A new documentary on one of the area's most infamous murder cases explores how the media may have dramatically altered the outcome of the groundbreaking trial.
"Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart" premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.
Director Jeremiah Zagar and producer Lori Cheatle said they wanted to explore Smart's 1991 trial, the first to be televised live from gavel to gavel, because the jurors were fully exposed to the "frenzy" of media coverage that accompanied it.
Zagar said this created a variety of "problematic" issues for the justice department and unfairly created a metaphorical "cage" for Smart long before she was sentenced to life in jail without parole for orchestrating the 1990 murder of her husband, Gregg.
"It's buried her," said Zagar, 33. "The hope is that this film opens up a conversation — a conversation about whether or not Pam Smart deserves to remain in prison."
Smart, now 46, was convicted of enlisting her teenage lover, William "Billy" Flynn, and three of his friends — all of whom were Winnacunnet High School students and Seabrook residents — to murder her husband on May 1, 1990.
The trial was closely followed by millions of people and inspired TV shows, made-for-TV movies, books and even the 1995 feature film "To Die For," which starred Nicole Kidman.
"Captivated" investigates the way authorities pieced the case together and how various inconsistencies and atypical trial choices were dwarfed by a narrative formed by the heavy media coverage of the events.
Zagar said he found the "salacious" archived coverage and evidence "fascinating," and said it changed how he feels about "the way media influences everything."
The film, which received strong reviews at this year's Sundance Film Festival, isn't designed to advocate for Smart's release or innocence.
That said, Zagar asserted that "no one feels that (it's) fair anymore" that Smart is still in prison while her co-conspirators have either been released from jail or are out on work release.
The documentary features exclusive new details about the case and Smart's trial, including never-before-heard audio recordings made by juror No. 13.
The juror, whose name and face are not revealed, recorded her thoughts after each day in court and described feeling "like a bug in a glass jar" due to the media coverage.
"I think the circus of the media was ridiculous," Juror 13 says on one of the tapes included in the documentary. "There were about 10 billion cameras going off — 'chhk, chhk, chhk,' everyone taking billions of pictures. I just think it rots. I just think it rots."
She also states she "adamantly" argued with other jurors that Smart was innocent, and that she felt Smart's attorneys didn't give her a "fair" defense.
Juror 13 even admits on one of the tapes that she would have deadlocked the jury had she known Smart wasn't going to receive any possibility of parole.
"Somewhere lies the truth and we're never going to know what it is," the juror says on one of the tapes.
The documentary includes interviews with media members who covered the case, as well as Smart, the case's prosecutors and defense team, authors, inmates, reality TV experts and co-conspirator Raymond Fowler, who served prison time for being a passenger in the Seabrook teenagers' getaway car.
Many make remarks about how, from the day of Gregg Smart's death, they feel Smart was wrapped in a narrative that at times was based largely on impressions and inferences from the media members delivering the information.
Richard Sherwin, a visual communication expert and professor of law at New York Law School, states in the documentary that once someone internalizes pieces of a "character" they create through personal opinions, that person then begins to "search for details to confirm that." Sherwin argues in the film that media members covering Smart's arrest and trial did just that.
He states he believes prosecutors didn't do enough to ensure the legal system was isolated from the coverage — the jury wasn't sequestered — and that these things are why he believes Smart "pays for our sins."
"I call it the 'God moment,'" Sherwin said. "Someone has to put all of the footage together. The moment when you intervene, you make a cut, you shift something, and all of a sudden you've seriously altered the meaning of that image."
Seacoast Media Group staff photographer Rich Beauchesne was a 19-year-old intern at Foster's Daily Democrat when he shot part of the trial, which was the first he ever covered.
Beauchesne said the back two rows of the courtroom were packed by reporters and photographers making a "fury of noise and chatting and talking."
While these media members may not have intended to do it, Beauchesne said he believes they contributed to an unfair trial for Smart because they were largely focused on "getting something original," attention-grabbing or sensational instead of ensuring they weren't "distracting" or influencing the proceedings.
"It was chaotic and it was loud," he said.
Smart continues to proclaim her innocence, and she tells Zagar and Cheatle in the documentary that her fight is both "exhausting" and what "sustain(s)" her every day.
Multiple appeals have been rejected, though Smart states she hopes the documentary will stop what she believes is a misrepresentation of the facts and serve as a catalyst for the commutation of her sentence.
"I've been trying to get back into court, and to this day I have to chip away at the avalanche of negative images (about me)," Smart said.