(BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y.) — The New Hampshire Supreme Court will decide on Tuesday whether to grant Pamela Smart a chance at a hearing that could put her on a path to freedom.
Smart was convicted in 1991 at age 22 of persuading her teenage lover, Billy Flynn, to kill her husband. She met Flynn, then a student, through her work in a New Hampshire school district. Soon after their affair began, Flynn fatally shot her husband, Gregg Smart, in the head.
The press flocked to Exeter, a small New Hampshire town, to cover the case against Smart. Her trial, three years before that of O.J. Simpson’s, was one of the first to be broadcast live — and Smart quickly became the center of a saga that led to a fervor for true crime and an era of televised trials.
Smart has now spent more than 32 years behind bars for conspiring to kill her husband. Flynn, who pulled the trigger, has been out of prison for nearly a decade.
Her accomplices, including three other teenagers who were charged as adults in the killing, cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to lesser charges. They have all been released from prison. Smart was convicted at trial of accomplice to murder in the first degree and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Smart’s Feb. 14 hearing will be the first time that she has had a chance to challenge the state’s repeated denials to make a case for her release.
Smart maintains that she did not ask Flynn to murder her husband — a factor the New Hampshire attorney general’s office and her prosecutor from trial have said disqualify her from mercy. Smart says she does feel responsible for Gregg Smart’s death but did not orchestrate his murder. Had she not had an affair, her husband would still be alive, she told ABC News.
If the court rules in favor of her on Tuesday, Smart will have a chance to stand before the governor and his executive council to ask for a commutation — which is a reduction of a sentence, often for good behavior, as opposed to a pardon which absolves someone of their crime.
For Smart, who has exhausted all of her opportunities to appeal her sentence, a commutation remains her only hope to one day get out of prison.
“In some respects the pieces are finally coming together,” Smart, now 55, told ABC News on a phone call from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York two weeks before the hearing.
“It feels like the last straw, the last stand,” she said. “If this doesn’t work out, what is there after this?”
In 1993, Smart was transferred from a New Hampshire prison to Bedford Hills where she has been ever since.
When she arrived at the maximum security prison, she found many people there knew about her case. In 1995, those who hadn’t watched her trial learned about it from “To Die For,” a Hollywood film starring Nicole Kidman, who played Smart.
She says her reputation has followed her for years.
In one instance, she says, a prison guard in 2003 leaked photos of Smart to the National Enquirer of her kneeling on her bed in her underwear, which sparked a new wave of headlines.
“It was like a nightmare my first 10 years here,” Smart said.
It was during that time Smart leaned into her studies. She began working on the first of three graduate degrees — two master’s, in law and English literature, and a doctorate in ministry.
She also worked as a teacher’s aide and, for those who needed extra help on her cell block, she taped a tutoring schedule to the unit’s bulletin board.
When Bella Gonzalez, 17, first arrived at Bedford Hills, Smart encouraged her to sign up for a slot.
“She gave me a new word for my vocabulary every day,” said Gonzalez, who at first spoke very little English.
The two became close over their nearly 20 years in prison together. They played softball — Smart in center field and Gonzalez at first base — and they cried when Gonzalez’s mom died. They also wept when Smart lost her appeals.
Both young women confided in each other about their dreams of motherhood; for Gonzalez a possibility, for Smart a foregone conclusion.
In 2005, the first two accomplices in Gregg Smart’s murder were paroled. Vance Lattime Jr, the getaway driver who supplied the weapon, and Raymond Fowler, who helped plot the murder, were released from prison. That same year, Smart was denied her first request for a commutation hearing.
While incarcerated at Rikers Island, Kelly Harnett had already heard that Smart was an effective jailhouse lawyer. But when she arrived at Bedford Hills in 2015 she found it was impossible to get a meeting with her.
“People would even follow her into the shower” to ask about their cases, she said.
Later that year, Flynn and another accomplice Pete Randall, who held the knife to Gregg Smart’s throat, were released from prison.
In 2018, New Hampshire rejected Smart’s second attempt for a 15-minute hearing with the governor to review her sentence. By that point, all of Smart’s appeals had been denied. Her friends, including Gonzalez, had been released and gone home. Gonzalez later had a daughter; she named her Pamela.
During a recent interview at Bedford Hills, Smart said she worried her ailing mother, Linda Wojas, 81, who has fought to clear her daughter’s name, would die.
“One day someone is going to walk in here, sit down where you are, and tell me my mom is dead,” said Smart. “I just want to go home so she has one night knowing I’m free.”
In 2021, Smart compiled three decades of evidence to support what may be her last request for a commutation hearing. She said she handpicked hundreds of letters written by prison leadership and inmates who say she changed the trajectory of their lives. She turned in copies of her three degrees, and attached at least 28 certificates for completion of rehabilitation programs.
On March 23, 2022 — in less than three minutes — New Hampshire’s Executive Council unanimously recommended that Gov. Chris Sununu again deny Smart a hearing.
A commutation would “demean the value” of her slain husband, one member of the council reasoned. There was no mention of Smart’s rehabilitation efforts, the basis for Smart’s attorney’s argument on Tuesday when he will challenge the decision.
Smart thought back to the council’s brief comments.
“In two years, my release is still gonna ‘demean’ Gregg’s life. In four years. In 87 years. That can never change. So what’s the point?” she told ABC News. “If I’m not rehabilitated, when will I be?”
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