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Tainted trial ended with life without parole

A petition has been filed with the governor of New Hampshire that breathes new life into an old and very sensational case. It asks Gov. Chris Sununu to embrace this era’s evolved thinking on prison sentencing, specifically the sentence of life without parole.

A key section of the 695-page petition reads, “The New Hampshire Constitution’s goal of punishment being ‘to reform, not to exterminate’ warrants relief for Pamela Smart through commutation of her sentence to time served or to make her parole eligible.”

Pamela Smart answers questions from the defense during her murder conspiracy trial in Exeter, N.H., in 1991. She was sentenced to life without parole. (Jon Pierre Lasseigne/Associated Press)

Pamela Smart was 21 when she made the biggest mistake of her life. She was a newlywed living in Derry, N.H., and her husband, Gregg, had admitted to cheating with another woman. Devastated, Pame threw herself into her job as director of media for 11 public schools. She met a dreamy-eyed, almost 16-year-old student named Billy Flynn. He was a juvenile delinquent who stole vehicles, robbed people, fenced stolen goods and used drugs. Pame and Billy clicked. They liked the same music, and he was attentive where her husband was not. In early 1990, they began a brief sexual affair.

True-crime buffs will remember what happened next. Billy and his teenaged bad-boy pal, Pete Randall, broke into the Smarts’ condo, ransacked it to make it look like a burglary and waited for Gregg. They forced Smart to his knees and with Pete holding a knife to his throat Billy fired one fatal shot into Gregg’s head. Pame was 40 miles away at a school board meeting.

Police had no leads until they learned of the affair from Pame’s intern, a student named Cecelia Pierce, who swore it was Pame who had devised the murder plot with her young lover. Detectives placed a wire on Cecelia and hoped to capture conversations proving Pame was the mastermind. The resulting tapes were of bad quality and barely audible in many spots, but Pame was heard telling Cecelia to lie to police or they would all “go to jail.” Pame would later explain she was desperate for information and only pretending to know about the murder plot so Cecelia would reveal what she knew.

Billy, Pete and two other teens who waited in the getaway car were arrested. They were, inexplicably, kept in adjacent cells for several months, making it easy for them to coordinate their stories. The boys mistakenly believed they’d only have to serve time until they were 18 so they stayed silent. But when the prosecutor decided to try them as adults and pursue the death penalty, they suddenly spoke and claimed Pame had concocted the crime and convinced them to kill so she and Billy could be together.

A controversial plea bargain was struck with the kids. There were no charges against Cecelia, even though she had helped the boys try to get a gun, and reduced sentences for Billy and Pete. In exchange, they all agreed to testify against Pame.

Pamela Smart was arrested on charges of accomplice and conspiracy to murder and witness tampering. She has always professed her innocence. She says Billy committed murder in a fit of rage after she told him she loved her husband and their affair was over.

Years before O.J. Simpson’s murder case, the Smart trial was America’s first nationally televised courtroom drama. The tiny New Hampshire town became the focus of unprecedented and relentless international media coverage. Weeks before the trial started reporters clogged the streets and blared the latest developments.

The media labeled Pame “the Ice Princess” and “the Black Widow.” They conducted phone polls, Pame look-a-like contests and headlined her probable guilt. It all, surely, tainted the jury pool. But Judge Douglas Gray refused to change the trial venue. He repeatedly denied motions and witnesses that could have helped Pame. Gray also failed to follow up on multiple reports of jury misconduct. He openly hoped that Clint Eastwood would portray him in the inevitable movie. There were two movies made. Eastwood was in neither.

After my thorough read of the trial transcript, and after much investigation, it’s clear that Pame’s defense attorneys also failed her. They only called one friend to vouch for Pame’s character. Their opening statement to the jury was lackluster, the closing statement downright embarrassing. Immediately after the verdict Judge Gray announced the mandatory sentence: Life in prison with no possibility of parole – ever. Every appeal by Smart has been rejected.

Twenty-eight years later and Pame, now 51, remains behind bars at the maximum-security women’s prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Her release date is 99/99/9999. As for Billy and Pete, the pair that committed murder? They both won parole in 2015 and are free.

I have visited and interviewed Pame several times. She has earned two master’s degrees in prison, helped countless inmates advance their education and is active in prison culture and church activities. She asked me recently, “Even if people think I’m guilty, which I’m not, haven’t I served enough time?”

That is the question now before Governor Sununu. More on this case next week.; e-mail to