In 1990 Pamela Smart’s husband Gregg was shot dead in their home in New Hampshire in what looked like an interrupted robbery. In 1991 Pamela Smart was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to kill her husband. It was shown in court that she convinced her 15-year-old lover and some of his friends to do the deed so that they could be together. The trial ran for 14 days and ended with a guilty verdict. What made this case remarkable was that it was the first trial to be televised and covered in real time by the media from the time the murder was committed to the time Pamela was sentenced. This documentary from Jeremiah Zagar explores the trial and examines the part that media had to play in how she was perceived.
Much as Gone Girl is an examination of a marriage gone wrong it is also a satire on the way in which American news outlets can shape the public’s perception of a murder case and those involved. Just as Nick Dunne was presumed guilty by some members of the media so Pamela Smart was presented as a scheming seductress before the case ever went to trial. This documentary even details just how hard it was for the courts to find a jury of fifteen people who weren’t already prejudiced about the Smart murder such that they could give objective judgement on the case. Considering the case of Oscar Pistorius which continues even right now in the media spotlight this is an important issue with relevance today.
Captivated slowly and methodically makes the case that whether guilty or not, as this is impossible to ascertain from the evidence provided, Pamela Smart was unable to receive a fair trial in New Hampshire due to the media having already branded her as guilty. In a damning moment the judge actually refuses to have the trial take place in a different state where the story has less notoriety. The presumption is that he did this to maintain the personal publicity the case brought, even fantasising about being played by Clint Eastwood in a possible film adaptation. Clint Eastwood may never have played the judge but both Helen Hunt and Nicole Kidman have played versions of Pamela in different film adaptations. Both of which presumed her to be guilty.
It is not difficult to agree with Captivated about the treatment of Pamela Smart. After being shown an endless stream of clips from coverage at the time, artfully displayed on old television sets, along with modern-day interviews with those involved it is easy to agree with Zagar’s conclusion that with the media frenzy surrounding the trial there was no way for Smart to receive a fair trial and that her sentence was far too harsh as a result. Captivated is a fascinating and disturbing film but drags in places as it labours its point. There is only really one argument being made here and it is made repeatedly for an hour and a half.
Captivated is worth watching as its message is just as relevant today as it would have been back in 1991 as high-profile trials continue to be conducted on TV and in newspapers as much as in the courtroom. Bear in mind as you watch though that the documentary is just as much a part of the media narrative of the crime as the other films it reports on.
Who knows what really happened? As a final twist to the documentary shows, after twenty years not even those involved in the murder are immune from having their perceptions warped by the medias portrayal of the case.
Trust no one!
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart airs on Sky Atlantic on 15th October 2014.