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April 15, 2007


Pamela Smart trial still resonates

Memories echo as Addison case begins



Monitor staff

April 15. 2007 10:00AM


very day for six weeks, attorney Peter Hutchins rushed from his own courtroom to the WMUR television studios in Manchester. It was March 1991, and Hutchins was the station's on-air legal analyst for the Pamela Smart trial.

The 6 o'clock news always began the same way, Hutchins said: with reporter Bill Spencer, who played himself in the TV movie about the case, recapping the day's events from the courthouse steps. Then Hutchins went on and answered simple legal questions: How do lawyers pick witnesses? How do you introduce evidence?

But it wasn't legal details that glued viewers to the live, in-court broadcasts and attracted so much national attention that Smart appealed her first-degree murder conviction on the grounds that publicity tainted her trial. No, Hutchins said, "it was more the soap-opera nature of the whole thing."

Smart was 22 years old, a pretty, determined newlywed, when she began an affair with 15-year-old Billy Flynn, a sophomore at Winnacunnet High School, in 1990. Shortly thereafter, Flynn shot her husband, 24-year-old Gregory Smart, execution-style in the couple's Derry condominium. Flynn, and the friends he enlisted to help him, eventually confessed; Smart, Flynn said, coerced him into committing murder so they could be together.

The local press latched onto the story and by the time of the trial, dish-topped trucks from as far away as Japan sat outside the courthouse. It was the biggest media swarm a New Hampshire court had ever seen - and what happened inside the courtroom, and later on appeal, helped write the rules for when the courts and the news media collide.

"That was really the first time that judges and lawyers and media in New Hampshire got exposed to the national frenzy that occurs," said Joseph Nadeau, a retired judge who served on both the state superior and supreme courts. Today, he said, "judges know when a case is going to have that, and they anticipate it."

Judge Kathleen McGuire seems to have done just that in the pending case of Michael Addison. Addison, 27, is charged with capital murder in the shooting death of Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs.

In December, two months before Addison was even indicted, McGuire issued a media order detailing the rules for press at his trial: No photographing the jury. No taping conversations between Addison and his lawyers. Under no circumstances should a reporter interview someone in the courtroom.

But there have already been challenges. Last week, McGuire turned down a request from WMUR to broadcast pretrial hearings live, ruling that there should be an hour delay to "provide some breathing room if unexpected events occur."

McGuire also refused to move the location of those hearings outside Manchester, despite arguments from Addison's lawyers that photos taken of him entering and exiting the courthouse in prison clothes and shackles could taint the jury pool. And she declined to wait to try Addison on a handful of lesser charges until after his capital murder trial, even though his attorneys said the onslaught of publicity would interfere with the jury's ability to be fair.

In both of her rulings, McGuire referenced the Smart case. Quoting from the state Supreme Court's denial of Smart's appeal, she wrote " 'it is the adverse nature of the publicity, not merely its quantity, that is critical.' "

No one involved with the Smart case disagrees about the volume of press it received. Nearly 1,200 news stories were written from the time of the murder to the verdict, less than a year later.

"It was such a sexy story, it was such a juicy story, that everyone wanted to cover it," said Eleanor Pam, a former New York City professor who serves as Smart's spokeswoman and has made it her life's work to free Smart.

WMUR aired reports daily and produced a special called Anatomy of a Murder. Newspapers polled readers about Smart's guilt. Her story spawned at least three books, Deadly Lessons, Teach Me To Kill and To Die For, and two films, one a made-for-TV movie that cast Helen Hunt as Smart and the other starring Nicole Kidman.

Mark Sisti, who represented Smart at trial, remembers the "avalanche of calls" he received from the press. Reporters' conduct in the courtroom, he said, was worse.

"It was not well-regulated to the point that reporters were trying to follow our client into the women's room, sticking microphones in her face from the holding facility to the courtroom," Sisti said. "It was physically intrusive."

The news media was fueled by the salacious details of the case, Pam said. They used them to "demonize" Smart, billing her as a hardened, sex-crazed teacher who pushed innocent teenage boys to do murder. It wasn't true, she said, but reporters repeated that message so many times that it became ingrained in people's minds.

Everyone knew that Smart was a Van Halen fan and that she and Flynn kissed while listening to Motley Crue. Everyone knew they'd had sex after watching the erotic movie 9½ Weeks, about an affair. One of the most damning things published repeatedly, Pam said, was a photo that Smart reportedly gave to Flynn of her posing in a bikini.

The teenagers' recounting of the murder wasn't kind to Smart, either. She plotted it, they said, instructing them to make it look like a botched burglary. She told the boys not to kill her husband in front of the dog and to use a gun because it would be cleaner; she didn't want blood on the sofa.

A jury convicted Smart of being an accomplice to first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole and is serving her time in Bedford Hills, New York.

Undeservedly so, Pam said. "Because of the fact that she had an inappropriate relationship with a young man, people were too ready to believe she could do anything and everything else, including murder," she said. "There was a distinct prejudgment of her guilt . . . and the media reinforced it."

But Paul Maggiotto, who prosecuted the case for the state attorney general's office, said he doesn't believe media coverage infected the trial. Most of the press accounts were neutral, he said, and the court found plenty of people who hadn't read about the case to sit on the jury.

"Pam Smart was convicted on the evidence against her," Maggiotto said.

The state Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court agreed, rejecting Smart's arguments that the atmosphere in the courtroom was "circus-like" and citing a comment made by the trial judge praising the jurors for ignoring the press during the proceedings.

"Although (Smart) characterizes her trial as a 'Roman circus' based on the conduct of the press, the only evidence to support this claim is the occasionally audible snapping of shutters of still cameras," the Supreme Court wrote. "Each time the court admonished the photographers, and no real disruption occurred."

Since the Smart trial, the guidelines for media in the courtroom have changed to guarantee even more access, thanks to a case brought by WMUR in 2002. The courts are now presumed to be open to cameras unless a judge rules otherwise, making New Hampshire one of the most lenient states in the nation.

"Fear of jurors being exposed to potentially prejudicial information or of witnesses being exposed to the testimony of other witnesses generally will not be a valid basis for denying electronic coverage," the ruling says.

That doesn't mean court hearings here are a free-for-all. As seen in McGuire's ruling in the Addison case, judges still have the discretion to direct the coverage as they see fit, limiting the number of photographers and videographers in the courtroom to one and setting aside a certain number of seats for reporters.

Addison's trial may pose especially tricky questions, however, because there is no precedent. New Hampshire last executed someone in 1939, long before television stations sought to stream live coverage on their websites. And his case, though closely followed, is nothing like Smart's: He's a man; she's a woman. He's black; she's white. Her trial was the stuff of tabloids; his has spurred political debates about the death penalty.

Maggiotto said the cases are like "apples and oranges." But the central question, he said, is the same.

"Can (Addison) get a fair trial in Hillsborough County?" Maggiotto said. "That's the question."

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Monitor staff