Archive for December 3rd, 2007

It’s Time to Consider Clemency for Pamela Smart

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

Guest Editorial by FRANK PAOLO- N.H.Union Leader-July, 2005


Pamela Smart today.

I’ve never met Pamela Smart. I read a book about her crime many years ago but forgot the title. I haven’t seen the Hollywood film nor the television movie about the murder in which she was involved. All I remember is Ms. Smart was a 21-year old school audio-video specialist who had an affair with a 15-year old male student. Incredibly, these two cooked up a plan to kill her husband who was unfaithful to her. This dumb idea landed the boy, the triggerman, in prison for 40 years. Since Smart did not believe she was guilty, she refused to cop a plea, was found guilty, and received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

I remember thinking her sentence a little harsh (even Charles Manson has the possibility of parole) but I really forgot about the whole thing for over a decade.

Then, a few months ago, a 21-year old woman friend was released from prison for crimes related to her heroin addiction. She immediately started getting high again. Despite being given many chances by the courts, she just shrugged her shoulders and acted the way 21-year olds often act: arrogant, invincible, and stupid. No one could reach her. No court, no program, no “adult”- seemed to be able to shake her and say, “Hey! You can’t seem to grasp this now – but the decisions you make today could ruin the rest of your life. THINK!”

And that’s when I remembered the Pamela Smart story. I wondered what she would tell my friend after making her own dumb decisions at 21 and then facing the rest of her life in prison. So I sent her a letter explaining the situation. I really didn’t expect a reply. After all, Smart had absolutely nothing to gain by talking with my friend; what did she care?

We received her reply in four days.

I was shocked. Today, Pamela Smart is an educated (she received two college degrees in prison), eloquent, and (most disturbing of all) compassionate woman. In a series of letters, she pleaded with my friend not to throw away her life. She spoke of the degradation of prison and the sweetness of the freedom she misses so much. “Please take your life seriously,” she implored. I later learned this is one of the same messages she repeats as a peer counselor to mentally ill inmates in her prison vocation.

Well, this whole situation began to bother me. Like everyone else, I like to stereo-type prison inmates. I figured if Smart talked to my friend, she’d have a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and she’d snarl (in a Humphrey Bogart voice) “Don’t be a sucker, kid. You’re on the outside. Stay there! Don’t be a doper – there’s no percentage in it.”

But Pamela Smart’s notes were nothing at all like that. They were written by a woman who is now much older, much wiser, and much sadder after having served nearly 15 years in a maximum security prison. She seriously regrets many past decisions and mourns the life she could have lived. She constantly worries about her aging mother and longs for a daughter she’ll never have. And yet, through her heavily medicated depression, she tries to help young women who still have a chance.

“Oh sure,” you might be saying, “nice, but what chance will her murdered husband ever have?” And a few months ago, I would have said exactly the same thing. But when Smart began writing my friend, some annoying words from former governor Mario Cuomo kept popping back into my head.

Cuomo lost his reelection campaign due, in large part, to his stand against capital punishment. A large percentage of New York voters favored the death penalty. I favored the death penalty. But I was troubled when Cuomo calmly asked some simple questions: “In what type of society would you like us to live? A society that seeks revenge? Or a society that sets the highest standards of compassion and civilized behavior?”

I tried not to listen when he said those words but I never forgot them. And the notes from Ms. Smart reminded me of them again and again. Unfortunately, Smart’s words had little effect on my friend. She screwed up again and is now back behind bars. Of course everyone was disappointed but no one was really surprised. 21 year olds make a lot of stupid choices. And I still believe there are many people who should be executed or imprisoned forever.

But today, I do not believe Pamela Smart is one of them.