When Good-Looking White People Kill

Why We Can't Look Away

Oscar Pistorius Is Tried For The Murder Of His Girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp

Oscar Pistorius leaves court. (Photo via Getty Images)

In spring 1990, at a time when I made my home in the state of New Hampshire, I turned on the news to learn that a young man by the name of Gregory Smart had been found lying on the floor of his condo in Salem, New Hampshire, shot dead at point-blank range. The one who discovered the body was his wife, Pamela Smart, then age 23—a part-time high school “media specialist” with aspirations for a career in broadcasting.

In the days after the murder, New Hampshire television-watchers (and I was one) grew accustomed to the sight of a tearful Pamela Smart—a pretty woman who sometimes wore her blonde hair tied with a bow—making a plea to all who tuned in to the six o’clock news. If anyone out there watching knew anything about the murder, she begged that person, come forward.

That August came more news in the case. An arrest was made: Pamela Smart herself. The charge: that she conspired with her teenage lover—a fifteen-year-old boy—in the murder of her husband, in the hopes of collecting his insurance and avoiding an expensive divorce that might also have put her at risk of losing custody of their shih tzu terrier.

Ms. Smart was indicted, along with a couple of other teenage boys charged as accessories in the crime. A photograph emerged—taken by the boy, Billy Flynn—featuring Pam Smart in a bikini. She looked like everyone’s idea of the head cheerleader, the prom queen. The press went crazy.

Another character emerged in the drama: an overweight teenage girl who’d befriended Ms. Smart during the period she had worked at the high school, to whom Smart had evidently confessed her love for the boy, Flynn. The girl—Cecelia Pierce, age 16—had agreed to cooperate with the police in exchange for immunity from criminal charges. Crucial evidence she’d provided, by wearing a police wire while in conversation with Ms. Smart about the murder, ultimately brought about Pam Smart’s arrest.

As a lifelong resident of the state where this drama unfolded, I watched the Smart case play out with guilty fascination. But for me, the story suggested a larger and more profound significance than what the tabloid headlines conveyed. It was about an unlikely murderer, alright, and it was about greed.  It was about sex. (For the boy, at least: a fifteen year old virgin at the time he came under the thrall of Pamela Smart, Billy Flynn had reportedly believed that the only thing standing between himself and a never-ending opportunity for adventures in bed with a dream girl was her husband, Gregory Smart.) But it was also about the power of television, not simply to report on a story, but to insert itself into the narrative and become part of it.

When I was growing up, I used to watch contestants on The Newlywed Game, selling their husbands and wives up the river—humiliating them on national television in ways that must surely have brought about more than one divorce, if not murder—all for the sake of the Hawaiian vacation or the living room set. These weren’t actors; they were real people, and the fact that nobody was reading from a script (or if they were, they pretended otherwise) made for chilling entertainment.

Pamela Smart got to be famous–fame, in our society, being measured not by a person’s accomplishments, but by his or her ability to get on television. That idea became the theme of my novel, To Die For. Rather than report on the actual details of the Smart case, I chose to write a darkly comic satiric novel, about a young woman so infatuated with the dream of seeing herself on the TV screen that she dispenses with her husband, and then (when he gets in the way too) betrays the boy she’d enlisted to execute her plan. She gets on TV alright. Though in the end, it’s someone else—a young teenage girl who idolizes her—who makes it all the way to what might have been seen as the pinnacle:  an appearance on Oprah.

I think one reason we get hooked on these murder trials has to do with Americans’ love of seeing people in possession of apparent good fortune and privilege brought down. As much as we love our stars as they ascend, we love how they fall.  Most particularly, Americans love the kind of criminal case that involves white, middle or preferably upper middle class types, who do not match what is –for the average middle class white American–the idea of what a murderer looks like.

Pamela Smart definitely did not look like a murderer. Of all the high-profile televised murder cases to have occupied the American imagination over the last twenty-five years, only one involved a person of color (two, if you count the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor). And O.J. was not exactly a man of the streets.

More commonly, the mainstream white viewing population likes watching people we identify as “like us” except for one crucial detail: they appear to have killed somebody. (Case in point:  Pamela Smart. The girl we all knew and very possibly envied, back in our high school days. How low the mighty had fallen. )

Back in 1990, in those early days after Pam Smart’s arrest, I found myself thinking back on Ms. Smart’s first appearance on the local news, in the role not of accused killer but that of grieving widow. Without knowing any more than the average viewer of the six o’clock news, it struck me that for this woman–whose idol, we were told, had been Barbara Walters—the murder, and her own arrest, had served to accomplish the goal of so many people in our media-driven culture.

There was a moment, in the Smart trial—so irresistible to me, as a writer, that I went back into the galleys of my novel to put it in as the book was going to press—in which the judge in the case had actually opined that when the movie version of this story got made (as, inevitably, it would), he’d like to see Clint Eastwood playing him. That concept came full circle when –four years later, when a movie was made of To Die For—the character of the ambitious young wife with aspirations to become a television personality, Suzanne Maretto, was played by Nicole Kidman. In the novel, Suzanne Maretto speculates at one point that a good choice to play her in the movie version of her life would be, “Tom Cruise’s wife.” In the dressing room, moments before going out on the set to film the scene in the movie in which I play a small cameo (as Suzanne Maretto’s lawyer), Ms. Kidman expressed to me her appreciation for the way I had inserted her (not by name, sadly, only by affiliation to her husband) in my book.

There’s a funhouse-mirror quality to all of this. Over the years television has given us the murder trial of Robert Blake—once the star of a TV series, in which he played a detective (and before that, star of the film adaptation of In Cold Blood, in which he played a killer). We’ve seen the name of Kardashian –first introduced to most of us from the OJ legal team—transformed into the ultimate reality television brand name, and Judge Ito (also of OJ fame) elevated to the role of Larry King guest, with Mr. King himself congratulated during the trial by both sides (defense as well as prosecution) for his fine work, covering them. Fellow performers all, they were all entertainers now, whether acting from a script, or exposing, for our consumption, the dramas of their real lives, for the entertainment of the masses. That would be us.

Here in America, we like our murderers attractive. (Ted Bundy and Scott Peterson and the Menendez brothers met the standard. So –on their good days—did Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony.) Ideally, the defense and prosecution teams should be good-looking too, as well as the witnesses. But that’s a lot to ask.

At the moment, we’re on hiatus from the trial of another famous person, charged with murder in another highly-publicized trial, that of Oscar Pistorius—a larger-than-life hero athlete famous (before shooting his girlfriend) for being a championship runner despite the amputation in childhood of both his legs. In the most dramatic moment of his trial, so far, his defense team got him to display, to a stunned courtroom audience, what it must have been like for him to make his way through his apartment that night, without benefit of prostheses, on the stumps of his amputated legs.

Like Pamela Smart, and the rest of them, Pistorius is attractive, successful. A sports fan can identify with him, at the same time as he recoils.  World-class athlete brought (literally) to his knees.

In the years since Pamela Smart’s story played out on national television—she was found guilty by the way, and sentenced to life without possibility of parole—we have seen not simply the proliferation of televised trials, and a whole new industry of trial commentators, from the high-falutin, Harvard-educated Jeffrey Toobin types to the histrionic Nancy Grace. In the same way that retired NFL players and former Olympic figure skaters now offer commentary on the sidelines of sporting events, so do criminal defense attorneys, weighing in on the cases of their legal brethren, and offering a play-by-play.

America has fallen in love with the phenomenon of watching so-called ordinary people in situations of conflict, duress, and abject humiliation. First it was murder trials. Then it was daily life. At the moment, the viewing public is getting large doses of a different kind of stress and humiliation—the marital kind—in the form of the “reality” show, featuring the on-camera therapy sessions of Tori Spelling and her actor husband, Dean, whose marriage is in meltdown. Notice I know this stuff? I am not too proud to admit, I have been known to tune in.

Back in 1990, when, inspired by the Smart case, I created the fictional character of Suzanne Maretto—the young woman with a dream of becoming the next Barbara Walters—I imagined my character delivering a speech to the eye of the television cameras. The subject of this speech was television, and its potential not simply to report on what is thought to be reality, but to transform it.
“If everybody’s house had one of those TV cameras in it all the time,” she muses, “do you think mothers would still scream at their children?”

“Television brings out the best in a person,” my character goes on, in a moment in which she saw herself as plumbing the depths of the meaning of life. “As long as you’re on TV, someone’s always watching you. If people could just be on TV all the time, the whole human race would probably be a much better group of individuals. The only catch is, if everybody was on TV, there wouldn’t be anyone left to watch.”

The year was 1990. We had yet to hear of Survivor. American Idol. The Bachelor. Real Housewives. Tori!

I’m not looking to take credit for this (or blame), but I like to think my character, Suzanne Maretto, may have had a small hand in their creation.

Maybe I should keep quiet about that.

 

Joyce Maynard’s most recent novel, After Her, was released in paperback last month (William Morrow Publishers.  Her novel, To Die For, was just reissued in paperback (Open Road Media).

When Good-Looking White People Kill