“Do you think we should have cameras in the courtroom?”
I’m asked that question at nearly every appearance. Whether I’m there to talk about my latest novel, domestic violence or women in the workplace – it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the occasion or the audience, it’s the one question that invariably pops up.
And it has no easy answer. On the one hand we want transparency. The Constitution guarantees the right to a public trial, and for good reason. We don’t want star chambers where only a select few get to see how justice is administered. But the downside is huge. TV coverage goes on for months before the case even comes to trial. By that time, witnesses who want the limelight have come up with stories to get their fifteen minutes, witnesses who don’t want the limelight have left town, lawyers have been all over the airwaves to spin public opinion and the jury pool is tainted with misinformation, half truths and outright lies. Even the staunchly good citizens who answer their jury summons with the intention of doing the right thing can’t be sure their view of the evidence hasn’t been impacted somehow by all the hoopla.
With the expanding media involvement in criminal trials, the now-accepted fact of channels devoted primarily to gavel to gavel coverage, the question becomes more pressing by the hour: does our Constitutional mandate for public trials necessarily mean we have to allow jury trials to become media circuses, cash cows for networks and news anchors who sensationalize – and inevitably polarize – in order to grab ratings?
There has never been a better, more insightful examination of that question than Jeremiah Zagar’s brilliant and newly released documentary, “CAPTIVATED, The Trials of Pamela Smart” (now playing on HBO). CAPTIVATED is utterly fascinating in its comprehensive look at the way public – and therefore jurors’ – perceptions of all of the players is affected and indeed shaped by media.
That trial, which took place in Derry, a small town in New Hampshire, in 1990, spawned books, articles and films – the fictionalized account written by Joyce Maynard became a major motion picture, “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman, and a made for TV movie that starred Helen Hunt. The case of Pamela Smart, a pretty young teacher (but as you’ll see in Zagar’s documentary, she wasn’t exactly a teacher) accused of seducing a high school student so she could recruit him to kill her husband, seized the airwaves and tabloids from the moment of her arrest.
As Jeremiah Zagar put it, “Teenagers in New Hampshire didn’t know who Paul McCartney was, but they all knew about Pamela Smart.” In fact, Zagar says a T shirt that read “I dated Pamela Smart and lived” was a huge seller.
From the moment the case was filed, the media began to dredge up and splash around sexy photos of Pamela Smart in a bikini, claiming she’d posed for them to seduce her besotted high school lover. Except that wasn’t true.
And it probably wasn’t even true that her lover was the one who killed Pamela Smart’s husband. Did she have the affair with the boy? Yes. She admitted that. Was it for the purpose of hiring a hit man to kill her husband? She says no. It was to pay her husband back for cheating on her. True or false? Did she seduce a young boy so she could use him to get rid of her husband? Or did that boy and his accomplices turn on her as a convenient fall guy, claiming that “she made me do it” to strike a deal that would get them a parole date?
In CAPTIVATED, Zagar wisely lets you make up your own mind. But this case doesn’t have science on its side. Pamela Smart was charged as the puppet master, not the killer. So the proof of her involvement comes from the statements of the boys who did it and a “friend” who wore a wire to try and get incriminating statements from Ms. Smart. There were no independent eyewitnesses. No DNA. No fingerprints.
As director Jeremiah Zagar says, it was a “he said- she said” case. Which only makes public perception of the players that much more critical. Who do we believe? Pamela Smart, who says she never told anyone to kill her husband? Or the actual killers, who insist she was the ring leader and driving force that made it all happen? With no physical evidence to buttress the key incriminating points, we’re forced to base our decision on our own impressions of Pamela Smart and the three boys who actually did the deed. There can be no situation more perfectly poised to expose the critical role media plays in shaping public opinion.
“I knew the media angle would be an area of interest,” Jeremiah Zagar said. “But I didn’t start out to make this film about cameras in the courtroom.” But in the course of amassing interviews with all the parties, including the residents in Derry who clearly remember the trial very well, Zagar realized that “the most fascinating part of the trial was “the watchers, more than the ‘watched.’” In other words, the impact of the pervasive media coverage on everyone involved, including the public at large.
Zagar beautifully weaves together the memories of the public (Geraldo Rivera seems to have been the only one interested in whether Pamela Smart could possibly get a fair trial given the intensity of the pretrial publicity), the defense, the prosecution, the cop and the reporter.
But the cynosure of this documentary is the self-taped thoughts of Juror Number 13. Played throughout the film, the insights provided by this articulate, intelligent juror are the most fascinating, and at the same time unsettling, part of the story.
The thing that sets this juror’s views apart from every other juror statement we’ve seen or read – and what makes it so compelling – is the fact that we are hearing her thoughts about the case as the trial is unfolding. It’s a taped journal made in the moment, day by day, in which Juror Number 13 reacts to each of the players as well as their media portrayals. Her thoughtful reactions to every aspect of the trial, the way she questions the fairness of the process that allows for media spin, for hype and hyperbole, her discomfort with it all, is as impressive as it is upsetting.
And the degree to which she and her fellow jurors are clearly aware of and affected by the media coverage is in itself a chilling indictment of that process.
Why is this so effective – and affecting? Because all other juror accounts are given after the fact. As such, they wind up being an effort to justify the decision that’s already been made. And as such, they’re subject to revisionist history, whether intentional or subconscious. Everyone wants to tell you why their verdict was right. So purposeful or not, contrary points of view are either hidden or forgotten.
Not so with Juror Number 13. Her doubts, her suspicions, her disapprovals are rendered in the moment, and they expose our system for better and for worse, warts and all.
We all take television for granted. It’s a fact of life in our world. But the indelible impact of the moving image and how it can shape our views, even alter our memories, is a more crucial issue than ever, now that criminal trials have become a staple of viewing entertainment.
CAPTIVATED puts this issue front and center, and its importance in that regard cannot be overstated. Dramatically compelling, insightful and comprehensive, this film takes a deep, intelligent look at an issue that more than ever, plagues our system of justice.
No matter how much you thought you knew about the impact of media coverage, this eye opening film will leave you with a whole new insight.
You can catch the replays of “CAPTIVATED, The Trials of Pamela Smart” on HBO