Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Pamela Smart, convicted in first sensational TV trial, loses appeal 32 years later

The New Hampshire Supreme Court said the state governor could legally reject Smart's bid for commutation without even thinking about it.

CONCORD, N.H. (CN) — Pamela Smart, who was convicted of plotting her husband’s murder in the country’s first sensational fully televised trial and inspired films starring Nicole Kidman and Helen Hunt, lost her bid Wednesday to have the New Hampshire Supreme Court release her from prison.

Smart was 22 when her husband was shot and killed in their Derry condominium on May 1, 1990. A jury convicted her less than a year later, finding that she had seduced a 15-year-old student at the school where she worked and persuaded him to kill her husband so as to avoid an expensive divorce and collect on a $140,000 life insurance policy. The student, William Flynn, and three friends who assisted in the murder have all since been released from prison, but Smart was sentenced to life without parole.

Having exhausted all her appeals, Smart requested that Governor Chris Sununu commute her sentence. But even though Smart submitted exhaustive materials suggesting that she had been rehabilitated after 32 years in prison, the governor and the state executive council dismissed the petition after a hearing lasting less than 2 1/2 minutes.

“We submitted … thousands of pages of testimony, of correspondence,” Smart’s lawyer Mark Sisti said Wednesday, as quoted by local news. “I know none of that was reviewed.”

Sisti told the state Supreme Court that this violated due process. But the court disagreed, saying in a brief unanimous opinion that Smart “does not have a legally protected interest in obtaining a commutation hearing that would implicate procedural due process rights.”

Sisti also argued that the governor was obligated to “engage in good faith discussion” of the petition, but the court said the governor had the right to handle it however he saw fit and the court had no ability to intervene.

During her time in prison Smart has gotten master’s degrees in literature and legal studies and tutored fellow inmates. She also won a $23,875 judgment after claiming that a guard sexually assaulted her and forced her to pose for suggestive photos that were published in the National Enquirer in 2003.

Smart’s trial was the first murder case to be covered gavel-to-gavel on live television, both on the Court TV network and on a local New Hampshire station that preempted all its regular programming. It became a national obsession and was a precursor to later sensational trials such as those of O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony.

The 1995 film “To Die For” starred Kidman as a young New Hampshire woman who seduces a teen boy, played by Joaquin Phoenix, to arrange her husband’s murder. Hunt also played Smart in a separate made-for-TV movie.

"To Die For" was adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard that was inspired by the trial. Maynard has since advocated for Smart’s release, as have a number of leading feminists including Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler and Kate Millett.

Smart's lawyer Sisti issued a statement Wednesday.

“We are very saddened that our Supreme Court sidestepped the main issue in this matter and has given the thumbs-up to the governor and council to avoid doing their mandatory constitutional job,” Sisti said.

He also told reporters that Sununu and the executive council avoided the matter because “it’s politically uncomfortable for them” and “they don't have the guts.”

Categories / Appeals, Criminal

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.

Loading...