BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — The sound of Pamela Smart arrives before she does.
Down the prison hallway it comes. Boot heels clattering on floor tiles. Moving fast.
They call her “Tinker Bell” here, she says, because she flits from one place to another like the cartoon fairy, always in a hurry, always in motion, trying to forget that she has all the time in the world.
Years before O.J. Simpson’s case became a made-for-television extravaganza, Smart starred in the first gavel-to-gavel broadcast of a murder trial in U.S. history. It was a seamy tale of blood and lust. The 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, pre-empted daytime soap operas in favor of testimony about sexual obsession and betrayal.
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.
Case still fascinates
The Pamela Smart who has spent more years behind prison walls than outside them can blur in the mind’s eye with the Pamela Smarts of factually challenged tabloid headlines (no, she wasn’t a schoolteacher) and fictional renderings, such as the chilling character she inspired for the cult favorite Nicole Kidman film “To Die For.”
“It was easy to cast me into that role of the femme fatale and leave it at that,” Smart, now 51, says 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 Millett’s death last year and strongly proclaimed her innocent.
Their urgings are included in a 695-page legal filing that asks New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to commute her 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, New Hampshire, on a street called Misty Morning Drive.
Doesn’t want to die 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 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. Smart is one of only four female New Hampshire prisoners incarcerated outside the state.
Celebrity prison mates
The prison where Smart was sent is set in rolling hills north of New York City, amid some of America’s priciest real estate. It has housed a parade of the country’s more notorious and well-known criminals, including Joyce Mitchell, the civilian prison tailor-shop worker whose romantic entanglement with two prisoners she helped execute a bold breakout was depicted in the recent Showtime series “Escape at Dannemora.” Among others are Amy Fisher, the teenage “Long Island Lolita,” who was convicted of shooting the wife of her lover, Joey Buttafuoco; and Jean Harris, who murdered an ex-lover, the author of “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.”
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.”
Pamela Wojas became Mrs. Gregory Smart in 1989. They’d 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.”
She aspired to be a television features reporter, a la Barbara Walters, but couldn’t find a decent-paying job in the profession 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, Smart 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, New Jersey.
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.
At the time, she was serving as a facilitator for a school self-esteem program. Through the program 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.
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 dead and lying in puddling 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 United Airlines 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 burglary 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.
On Aug. 1, 1990, Smart was arrested, and investigators began to build a compelling case focusing on 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 jury agreed, and on March 22, 1991, 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.
As she contemplates her future, Smart has not been idle, earning two master’s degrees and working toward a doctorate in ministry. She also receives plenty of correspondence, answering each one.
But she does admit to becoming angry at times as she envisions her former accomplices enjoying their freedom. Smart says she’d be lying if she admitted to orchestrating her husband’s murder, but is willing to acknowledge an indirect role
Now, she says, “I do feel responsible for my husband’s death. … When I think about it, I say that all of this is my fault. Had I not made that initial, horrible decision (to have an affair) nothing would have happened.”
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