The reality of young people sentenced to life without parole

Last week, I wrote about the plight of Pamela Smart, who, in 1991, at the age of 22, was found guilty of conspiracy to murder her husband. Gregg Smart was shot dead by his wife’s 16-year-old lover and another teenager. Pamela was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

To this day, Smart, now 51, expresses deep remorse for her affair with Billy Flynn but steadfastly maintains she did not plot with him to murder her new husband.

Over the past three decades, advances in both neuroscience and sentencing reform underscore what the U.S. Supreme Court called the “cruel and unusual punishment” a life term with no parole means for a young person. Because science has proved that people younger than 25 don’t have fully developed brains, especially the part that guides rational thinking, you don’t often see life-without-parole sentences handed out to that age group these days. And there is a trend in prosecutors’ and governors’ offices to take a second look at these older life-without-parole cases, with an eye toward granting parole to truly rehabilitated convicts.

Back in the early 1990s, Smart worked as a media liaison for public schools. She was described as accomplished in academics but socially immature. At trial, the prosecution painted her as a master manipulator who persuaded not only her teenage lover but several of his friends to kill for her.

Despite massive pretrial publicity, Judge Douglas Gray denied a motion to change the venue. He refused to sequester the jury from the obvious and negative all-Smart-all-the-time media atmosphere. He seemed to pooh-pooh allegations of juror misconduct, including a report that during trial, a juror told bar patrons the jury would definitely find Smart guilty. And when Flynn’s incriminating jailhouse letters surfaced during the trial, Gray would not let the defense attorney recall him to the stand to question him. What did Flynn mean when he wrote this about his controversial plea agreement with the prosecutor? “There (sic) afraid I will get on the stand and say she is innocent. I dread that day more than anything. I hate myself for having to do this.”

Had he and his bad-boy friends made up Pamela Smart’s involvement to get a reduced sentence and avoid the death penalty?

Many jurors said they voted guilty after hearing police surveillance tapes of Smart and her 16-year-old intern, Cecelia Pierce. Smart was heard on the scratchy and poorly recorded tapes making incriminating statements and urging Pierce to lie to police.

Smart testified at trial — and repeated to me during prison interviews — that she was only pretending to know about the murder plot so Pierce would reveal what she knew, seeing as the teen was friendly with both Flynn and his main accomplice, Pete Randall. Pierce also seemed to have information about the crime no one else had. A defense witness and his girlfriend both backed up Smart’s claim that she was only playacting during conversations with Pierce.

The prosecutors did not take the usual step of authenticating the wiretap tapes to prove police hadn’t selectively edited them. They sent the recordings to an expert to enhance the sound, but he was not asked to create the transcript the jurors were given to help them follow along with the tapes. Just who typed up those words from the hard-to-hear tapes remained a mystery until recently.


Diane Dimond is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist