BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — Years before O.J. Simpson’s case became a made-for-television extravaganza, Pamela Smart starred in the first gavel-to-gavel broadcast of a murder trial in U.S. history.
Her trial became an international sensation, so compelling that CourtTV aired it in 1991 and a local television station in New Hampshire, where the trial was held, preempted daytime soap operas in favor of testimony about sexual obsession and betrayal.
Today, Smart lives with the echoes of the truths and the myths of those long-ago days at a maximum-security women’s prison in New York. She was 23 when she was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury convicted her of using her sexuality to manipulate her former teenage lover to murder her husband.
“It was easy to cast me into that role of the femme fatale and leave it at that,” Smart, now 51, says one afternoon on the phone from prison. Smart agreed to a series of phone conversations and a videotaped prison interview with The Washington Post in which she offered previously undisclosed details and an intimate glimpse of her inner life as she mounts a new push to be released from a life sentence.
Her case still fascinates, resurfacing at a moment in American history when life-without-parole sentences are being reassessed and, in dozens of cases, erased by governors in states as politically diverse as Maryland, California and Louisiana. There are websites dedicated to winning Smart’s release and periodic tweetstorms for a woman who has been in prison so long that she’s never used the Internet or an iPhone. Amateur sleuths pore over details of the case in support of her fervent claims of innocence. Tipsters whisper clues to her legal advisers and her mother. They believe in other Pamela Smarts — the Pamela Smart who says she was wrongly convicted or the Pamela Smart who wants the world to consider her argument that, even if a jury thought she was guilty, she’s been imprisoned long enough.
Her detractors see another seduction in motion, a ploy to woo the public this time, rather than a teenage boy. Paul Maggiotto, who prosecuted Smart’s case and is now in private practice, calls Smart a “sociopath” in an interview. But some of America’s most prominent feminists have come to her aid, drawn in part by the fact that the teenage triggerman and his three male accomplices have all been released from prison, while the woman who became the face of the case remains behind bars. Among those who have written to the state on her behalf are Gloria Steinem, “Vagina Monologues” playwright Eve Ensler and Kate Millett, the groundbreaking author of “Sexual Politics,” who visited Smart in prison before her death last year and strongly proclaimed her innocent.
Their urgings are included in a 695-page legal filing that asks New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, to commute Smart’s sentence and make her eligible for parole. The state attorney general’s office is fighting the request, which has been slowed by procedural requirements, saying in a blistering response that she is undeserving of the “mercy and compassion” she wants. Smart “places the blame for her crimes and her current predicament everywhere but where it belongs, squarely on herself,” the response says.
Smart’s legal team hopes to convince the state that her sentence is an example of a justice system out of step with modern legal and ethical thinking. But her attorneys and supporters also want to cast doubt on the outcome of Smart’s trial, revisiting a strange spectacle that began with a terrible thing that happened late one night in Derry, N.H., on a street called Misty Morning Drive.
Pamela Wojas married Gregory Smart in 1989. The two met at a party in New Hampshire while she was visiting her family during a college break.
Her new beau moved to Florida to live with her while she finished her degree in communications at Florida State University. When she wasn’t in class, she interned at a local television news station and hosted a program on the college radio station titled “Metal Madness.” She was also the station’s promotions director, she says, a gig that meant she handed out backstage passes for acts such as the Scorpions and Whitesnake.
“I went backstage with everybody,” Smart recalls. “I was the woman with all the goods.”
Smart aspired to be a television features reporter, but she couldn’t find a decent-paying job after she graduated. The couple moved back home after her mother alerted her to a position as a media services director, responsible for writing feel-good news stories and managing a video library, for 11 schools in southeastern New Hampshire.
For a time, she says, she had a happy marriage. Her husband took a job as a life insurance agent. He’d gotten her a dog that she named Haylen — a twist on the name of her favorite band, Van Halen. They moved into a rented condominium near his parents, and her new mother-in-law helped her decorate it just so. There were weekend outings at the Trump casino in Atlantic City.
But they hadn’t yet been married a year, Smart says, when her husband confessed to her that he’d had a one-night stand.
“I thought there was something wrong with me and I wasn’t good enough,” Smart says.
Smart was working as a facilitator for a school self-esteem program when she met a 15-year-old student volunteer named Billy Flynn. She remembers Flynn, six years her junior, flattering her and says she eventually “started to develop feelings for him. I thought he had feelings for me, too.”
There have been conflicting accounts about who seduced whom, but both Flynn and Smart have testified that they became lovers. Smart says that they began having sex sometime around his 16th birthday and that she slept with him more than five times over the course of about two months. All the while, she says, her husband’s admission was coloring her mind-set.
“I feel like if that had not happened I wouldn’t have gotten involved with somebody else,” she says.
In prison, she has asked herself over and over how she ended up having an affair.
“Sometimes I find answers,” she says on the phone one day.
Other times she comes up blank, she says: “Sometimes I think I don’t even understand my own self.”
On May 1, 1990 — six days before her first wedding anniversary — Pamela Smart came home from a school meeting to find her 24-year-old husband lying dead in a puddle of blood on the floor of their condominium.
As the investigation proceeded, Smart was in a frenzied state, alternating between depression and mania, her mother, Linda Wojas, says in a recent interview. Wojas says she took Smart to a residential mental health facility. The facility was about to admit her when both mother and daughter hesitated, Wojas says.
“I didn’t want to leave her there,” Wojas says. “I thought I could take better care of her. I think I made a terrible mistake.”
The next month, the case of Gregory Smart’s murder blew wide open. Two of Billy Flynn’s friends — Pete Randall and Vance Lattime Jr. — told a classmate that they’d been involved in the killing.
They eventually turned themselves in and pleaded guilty after agreeing to cooperate in return for reduced sentences. They said Lattime bought bullets with money given to him by Smart. Flynn said he shot Gregory Smart in the head while Randall held a knife in front of the victim’s face.
The class divide was glaring. The boys were from Seabrook, a working-class neighborhood that the cartoonist Al Capp has said provided the inspiration for his rube-ish Appalachian characters in the comic strip “Li’l Abner.’ Smart was the daughter of a Delta Air Lines pilot, who’d risen from humble origins to build a comfortable life.
After being told they would be charged as adults, the boys eventually told investigators that Smart orchestrated the killing down to the smallest detail — leaving an entrance unlocked so they could surprise her husband when he came home, instructing them to make it look like a burglar and offering to pay them $500 apiece.
Looking back, Smart says, none of those things took place. But she allows that it’s at least possible that Flynn could have interpreted her words as a request to kill her husband.
She says she told him, “I can’t, you know, do this because I have a husband. If he translated that into, you know, that he couldn’t have me as long as Gregg was around, then that’s in his brain . . . that as long as Gregg was here, Bill could never have me for himself.”
While Flynn was incarcerated, Smart almost made it easy for investigators to finger her as the culprit. She had a series of conversations with Cecilia Pierce that were monitored by police using a phone wiretap and body wire. On the tapes, which would be played at Smart’s trial the next spring, she seems to be urging Pierce to lie to investigators.
“If you tell the truth, you’re gonna be an accessory to murder,” Smart says in one exchange, according to a prosecution transcript.
“What good is it gonna do if you send me to the f—ing slammer?” she asks.
Smart has said that the conversations were a charade — that she was conducting her own private investigation and pretending to know more about the crime than she did. A friend of her husband’s corroborated that part of her story at the trial.
On Aug. 1, 1990, Smart was arrested.
The circus was about to begin.
“Let me tell you what the, quote, fake media did to us 28 years ago,” Linda Wojas says on the phone one recent afternoon.
Smart made a compelling central figure when her trial launched in 1991, tailor-made for a media frenzy. Blond, petite and well-dressed, she was sometimes described as a “schoolteacher,” a mistake that Smart believes fed into a stereotype. Some of the coverage noted that one of the hit songs by her favorite band, Van Halen, was called “Hot for Teacher.”
Smart and her supporters frequently complain that there was too much focus in the media about her appearance. The bows she wore in her hair during the trial became an object of fascination.
The jury wasn’t sequestered until the second day of deliberations. It later came out that one juror was making tape recordings at night about her thoughts on the trial. The witnesses weren’t sequestered either; Flynn and the other two boys were housed together, and at times were able to watch one another’s testimony.
Smart’s demeanor on the witness stand played into the narrative that she was an ice princess. She shed no tears in court, but her former lover, Flynn — a big-eyed kid with a quintessentially 1980s mullet haircut — cried openly on the witness stand. Looking back, Smart says she’d been raised to contain her emotions; stoicism was a virtue. But at night during the trial, when no one was looking, she says she sobbed.
One of the fundamental underpinnings of the case was the idea that Smart was an older woman who used her sexual wiles to entrance a teenager who became obsessed with her to such a degree that he was willing to kill for her. The prosecution referred to Flynn as a “virgin,” and in its closing argument said he was having “his first sexual experience. He’s in way over his head. And I submit she liked it that way.”
Smart believes those assertions created the impression that Flynn was an “innocent” whom she “deflowered.” Her attorneys are trying to cast doubt on Flynn’s testimony, arguing in her commutation request — without presenting any proof — that they have found new evidence that Flynn wasn’t a virgin before he met Smart.
Flynn, who was encouraged by an official at his parole hearing not to talk to the media after his release, declined through his attorney to comment.
Smart says she was the one who was inexperienced in the ways of love. Asked about her sexual history, she says in a phone interview that she was “sexually active” with a boyfriend in high school but says she was too busy to date during college before meeting her future husband.
Even as the trial was unfolding, it was clear the saga was destined for Hollywood. Pierce, who was a key witness against Smart, had made a movie deal.
The lines between what was happening in the real world and what was happening on television screens were blurring — even on the witness stand. Flynn testified that he and Smart watched the film “9 ½ Weeks,” then reenacted a steamy sexy scene.
“I think he’s having a problem remembering where reality began and the movie stopped,” Smart testified.
From his perch at the prosecution table, Maggiotto wasn’t buying any of it. The evidence, he says in a recent interview, was overwhelming: “I just don’t think she was that believable.”
On Mar. 22, 1991, the jury convicted her of witness tampering and conspiracy to commit murder and of being an accomplice to first-degree murder. Under New Hampshire law, the accomplice conviction meant she would spend the rest of her life in prison.
Soon after the verdict was delivered, a juror wrote in a first-person piece for the Boston Globe that he considered any suggestion that the decision was influenced by the media “insulting.” More recently, the 2014 HBO documentary, “Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart,” featured a juror who would have hung the jury if she’d known Smart would be sentenced to life in prison.
Pamela Smart has been thinking about death a lot. She’s thought about it while attending memorial services for fellow inmates whose remains are bound for the prison potter’s field, where they bury the bodies of women no one wants to claim.
Sometimes the thought is triggered by a stray comment that she hears as someone passes what she calls “her room” — the place that is actually her cell. But just as often the notion of dying in prison pops into her head uninvited.
“It’s always in my brain,” Smart says one afternoon on the phone in voice flat and devoid of emotion. “I would rather be put to death than die in here of old age.”
She arrived at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women one morning in 1993, transferred from the New Hampshire prison she’d occupied since her conviction two years earlier. The official line was “security reasons,” but Smart suspects “New Hampshire wanted to sweep me under the rug” and make it more difficult for family and attorneys to visit.
Smart has also suggested that her former home state is being unfair to her because inmates with similar sentences are imprisoned in New Hampshire. A prison spokeswoman declined to comment about the reasons for her transfer. Smart is one of only four female New Hampshire prisoners incarcerated outside the state.
Within a few years of Smart’s transfer to Bedford Hills, her eye socket was fractured in an attack by two fellow inmates. She had to have a plastic plate surgically implanted and has lost feeling on the left side of her face.
In the New Hampshire prison, Smart says, she’d been able to wear her wedding ring. But when she came to Bedford Hills, she says it wasn’t allowed because it had a diamond setting. She gave it to her mother to hold for her. At that moment, three years after her husband’s murder, the ring meant something to her, something she wanted to keep — it still does.
“Why wouldn’t I?” she says during a recent interview in the prison library. “I mean, I’m still married.”
One night in the mid-1990s, Pamela Smart settled into a chair for movie night inside the prison in Bedford Hills. As always, she says, she didn’t know what film would be played. She felt a chill as the opening scenes appeared on screen.
The film was titled “To Die For,” and it starred Nicole Kidman in the role of an ambition-crazed woman who has an affair with a teenager, then manipulates him into killing her husband.
“It’s almost like when you see a car accident and you think to yourself, ‘Why am I looking at this?’ ” she recalls in an interview. “Later, the reality sinks in that people actually believe that because they’ve seen it on TV.”
The movie, a critical success filmed in mockumentary style, was based on a novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard. Kidman’s portrayal of Suzanne Maretto, the character Smart had so clearly inspired, chafed Smart.
“She portrayed me as flaky, like an airhead,” Smart says. “Ambitious to the point where she was willing to step on anybody who got in the way of her ambitions. In the movie she came across as very narcissistic. I’m so not that way at all.”
“The film was the killer for her,” says Eleanor Pam, her academic adviser. “Guards tell her, ‘I saw it. I know what you did.’ ”
One of the prison’s guards, according to Smart, sexually assaulted her in 2003, and took photos of her in lingerie, in the same poses she’d struck in photos shown to the jury at her trial. She says he then threatened to kill her family if she told anyone. The photographs were later published by the National Enquirer. (The guard has since died.)
That same year, she earned a master’s in English literature from Mercy College; it was her second, after having earned a master’s of science in law degree from the Southern California University for Professional Studies two years earlier. She’s now working on a doctorate in ministry, she says.
“I don’t have time to be depressed,” says Smart, who serves as a grievance representative and HIV-prevention counselor for fellow inmates, and dreams of working for the United Nations in HIV prevention if she’s ever released.
But at times, she says, she’s been angry. Especially in June 2015 when Flynn, who got married while he was still in prison, and Randall were released early after being granted parole. (Lattime, who provided the gun and drove the getaway car, was paroled in 2005; Raymond Fowler, who waited in the car the night of the murder, was paroled in 2003.)
The release of the four men involved in the killing gave Smart’s supporters an added boost for their argument that gender has played a role in the case.
“The feminists got it right away,” says Pam, a professor emerita of City University of New York who is the president of Veteran Feminists of America, a nonprofit feminist history organization. “It was clear that she was the 20th-century version of all the feminine villains in history.”
Steinem, the legendary feminist leader, cited the releases and called Smart’s sentence “an enormous injustice.”
Maynard wrote a letter to the governor’s office, saying, “To whatever extent Pamela Smart’s chances for a fair parole hearing might have been affected by my novel, I trust that you will do what you can to rectify that situation by giving her the same second chance granted the others involved in the case.”
Maynard, who did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this article, has long said that her novel, which was published after Smart’s trial concluded, was a work of fiction with a story line influenced by what she’d read in the media about Smart.
Smart has asked for mercy before. In 2004, the state of New Hampshire denied her request to have her sentence commuted.
A key in commutation cases is whether the inmate has accepted responsibility and expresses remorse. Smart finds this to be a kind of impossible riddle — she doesn’t want to admit to a crime she says she didn’t commit. What she’s left with is a confusing path — pleading her innocence, while at the same time making arguments that could be used by a person who has admitted guilt. For example, citing scientific studies that support the argument that people younger than 25 should not be sentenced to life in prison because their brains are not fully developed and that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions in the same manner as older offenders.
The attorney general’s vigorous opposition to her current request emphasizes that she still has not accepted “full responsibility.”
Smart has blamed “the news media, the witnesses, the trial judge and the prosecutors. . . . Her attempts to blame others for her incarceration are a reflection of not only her guilt, but her inability to be rehabilitated,” Associate Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin writes.
Smart says she’d be lying if she admitted to orchestrating her husband’s murder, but parts of Strelzin’s argument ring true to her.
“For many years, it was the whole world’s fault — not mine,” she says. “I think on some level, in my brain, I didn’t want it to be my fault.”