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September 17th, 2014

Captivated: the Trials of Pamela Smart ***1/2

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye… she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. -Genesis 3:6

 

Blaming women for men’s sins is part of the human condition; at least as old as the Bible.

Sometimes the criminal justice system works just like Genesis: railroading and condemning a mostly innocent woman for our pleasure and amusement.

One of the reasons why women are rightly called the “fairer sex” is that they are very rarely the perpetrators of unprovoked violence. On the rare occasion that a woman – especially a young, good-looking woman – is involved in a violent crime, the media is eager to follow the story. And the public is eager to see the woman humbled and convicted.

The thought-provoking HBO documentary “Captivated: the Trials of Pamela Smart” tells the upsetting story of a 1991 trial in which a likely innocent woman was slandered, defamed, and given an unjustifiably extreme prison sentence.

The story begins in 1990. Pamela Smart – a 23-year-old New Hampshire woman – discovered that her husband had been shot to death in a home invasion.

This immediately became a big local story, both because there are very few unsolved murders in Northern New England and because the young widow was photogenic and happy to give interviews.

The case became a lot more lurid when it was discovered that the killers were three teenage boys, one of whom was sleeping with Pamela Smart.

In an instant, Pamela Smart went from victim to viper – from Madonna to whore. The media portrayed Smart as a black widow who seduced the innocent boys and manipulated them to commit the murder.

Newspapers printed racy photos of Smart in her underwear, alleging that she gave the teens the pics to lure them into her evil scheme. The movie reveals that the photos were actually taken with some of Smart’s female friends as part of an innocent drunken dare and never shared with the killers.

Four years before OJ, the trial was the first televised murder case in U.S. history. And lovely young Pamela Smart was the star.

The state agreed to give the teenage killers a lighter sentence in exchange for their cooperation and testimony against Smart.

Documentarian Jeremiah Zagar convincingly argues that the media told such a seductive conspiracy story that Pamela Smart’s defense team couldn’t compete. The jury – which was never sequestered – found Smart guilty of conspiracy to commit first degree murder. She is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

The film left me with the impression that Pamela Smart was guilty of nothing more than bad taste in boyfriends.

But no matter what Smart is guilty of, it is an outrageous travesty that a woman who was nowhere near the scene of the crime got a harsher sentence than the people who actually pulled the trigger.

I’m even going to take it a step further: I’m not sure that it makes sense to imprison women who hurt their husbands under most circumstances. If a woman who has no criminal background assaults her husband, he probably asked for it to some extent. More importantly, the wife almost certainly doesn’t pose a threat to the general public. I think we as a society should only waste $100,000s and ruin a woman’s life by sending her to prison if she is a real danger to the community.

If a woman is guilty of hurting her husband and nothing more, I think a fair punishment is to make her get a tattoo that reads: “Attention suitors: date this woman at your own risk.” That is a real punishment and it adequately protects the people that are truly at risk of being attacked by her.

I don’t expect you to go along with my tattoo punishment idea. But I hope that the next time you see a news story about a “temptress” or a “black widow,” you’ll consider the likelihood that the woman is being unfairly defamed like Eve or Pamela Smart.

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