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 newlywed husband.  

Over the last 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 proven that those under 25 don’t have fully developed brains, especially the part that guides rational thinking, you don’t often see life without parole (LWOP) sentences handed out to that age group these days. And there is a trend in prosecutor’s and governor’s offices to take a second look at these older LWOP cases with an eye toward granting parole to truly rehabilitated convicts.

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

Despite massive pre-trial publicity Judge Douglas Gray denied a change of venue motion. 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 the killer Flynn’s incriminating jailhouse letters surfaced during the trial Judge Gray would not let the defense attorney re-call him to the stand to question him. What did Flynn mean when he wrote 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 Pame’s involvement to get a reduced sentence and avoid the death penalty?

Pamela Smart and Billy Flynn at Trial circa 1991

Many jurors said they voted guilty after hearing police surveillance tapes of Smart and her 15-year-old intern, Cecelia Pierce. Pame was heard on the scratchy and poorly recorded tapes making incriminating statements and urging Pierce to lie to police.

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

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

Prosecutor Paul Maggiotto now admits it was “some secretary in the office” and not a certified transcriber. Team Smart maintains the transcripts were not accurate and tainted by confusion over who was speaking at any given time. They ask, how could someone put words on a page while listening to an oftentimes impossible to hear tape recording?

There were other problems at trial that I believe were unfair to Smart but I recount this much here because by today’s enlightened judicial standards her many appeals might very well have been heard instead of routinely rejected.

Our judicial system is certainly not infallible but justice and fairness must always be its foundation.  As the system has played out in this case the confessed murderers, Flynn and Randall, were released from prison in 2015.  Smart has served 28 years and is set to die at the Bedford, New York maximum-security prison where she is held.

Smart has been an exemplary prisoner. She has earned two master’s degrees and is working on her Doctorate in Divinity. Over the years she has consistently taught and ministered to her fellow inmates. Her dream is to work for the United Nation’s as an ambassador for either HIV/Aids education or prison reform since the U.S. is the only country in the world that condemns its young people to die in prison.

Smart’s best hope for freedom lies in her recently filed petition to the governor of New Hampshire. She’s asking for the chance to go before a parole board some day or for commutation to time served. Governors in at least nine states have given such reprieves. Smart is hoping Governor Chris Sununu does the same for her.


Watch my exclusive 3-part interview with Pamela Smart on Investigation Discovery, plus extra online programming from my one-on-one prison interview with Smart here

Pamela Smart: an American Murder Mystery on Investigation Discovery


  1. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:03 pm

    NOTE: I wrote, “The United States is the only country that condemns its young people to die in prison. Okay with you?” Here are some responses.

    Facebook Friend Dave Jordan writes:

    Yes, if they did the crime.

    • Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:04 pm

      Diane Dimond replies:

      So a young person’s worst decision means they should lose their freedom for the rest of their life? I dunno, I made some really baaaad decisions as a kid.

  2. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:07 pm

    Facebook Friend Ginnie Oleskewicz Schwartz writes:

    No, definitely not… I personally believe that most can be reformed.. I believe it should be a case by case decision… With many interventions… My opinion…

  3. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    Facebook Friend Bill Voinovich writes:

    Sorry, but everybody seems to have forgotten about the victim here..
    HE got no early release…His life was ended by one or more conspirators who are now free, and if Smart is released, that pretty much means she got away with it…
    If you do something heinous enough to be sentenced to LWOP, then that’s the way it is….
    People will be less likely to commit these crimes if they KNOW LWOP MEANS LWOP…….

    • Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:10 pm

      Diane Dimond replies:

      You DO realize, Bill Voinovich, that courts don’t give out LWOP sentences to young people much anymore. We’ve “evolved” as a society and understand young people’s brains are not fully developed until age 25 or 30. And – wait – after serving 28 years you think Smart will “get away with it” if she ever wins parole? She’s been in max security more than half her life. Sounds like plenty of punishment to me.

  4. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    Facebook Friend Eddie Emmons writes:

    Diane Dimond She’s a terrible example of your argument…she’s a sociopath….I find the Manson girls a better cause to take up…young, manipulated….Pam is a complete sociopath…

    • Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:13 pm

      Diane Dimond replies:

      Eddie Emmons I would disagree. I cannot say if she’s guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but I don’t believe she is a sociopath. I don’t believe she would be a danger to society if she were to be released. Just my opinion after having met with her so many times, exchanged letters and phone calls…..

      • Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:14 pm

        Facebook Friend Anthony Flacco replies:

        Problem is, you can’t interview and exchange letters with her murdered husband. You can’t develop a relationship with her victim. You can’t campaign for her victim to receive a break. He was only 24 and all she had to do was leave him, but instead she had him murdered for her convenience. Only a sociopath can go through with all that, and sociopaths do not get better with age nor do they respond positively to treatment.

  5. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:20 pm

    Facebook Friend Donnakay Church writes:

    Diane Dimond So we should lack off on punishment for major crimes for anyone under 30 because their brain is not fully developed? I ain’t buying that load. A 15 year old knows the difference between right & wrong if his parents have taught him those values. We all evolve over time & change our behavior & opinions, that does not mean criminals should be released from their sentences IMO.

    • Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:20 pm

      Diane Dimond replies:

      So, Donnakay Church do you believe we have become better informed, more evolved from those days when we automatically locked up people and threw away the key? We don’t do that anymore ….. so what about those who were caught up in that decades ago?

      • Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:21 pm

        Donnakay Church replies:

        More evolved—-yes but am not so sure we evolved in the right direction. We seem to have become soft on crime & the results are not good so far. The ones who were caught up in that decades ago were tried & sentenced legally, they should serve their sentences IMO.

  6. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Facebook Friend Chad Perry Tate writes:

    Absolutely ok with me. If the crime is serious enough that a sentence of Life Without Parole is being considered then yes I am fine with it. If you do the crime then you do the time. We must not forget about the VICTIMS in every case. These victims did not ask to be murdered. They did not deserve to have such acts of violence bestowed upon them. I have no sympathy for those who commit such violent acts…regardless of age.

  7. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Facebook Friend Jeff Davis writes:

    While there is a case to be made for lengthy imprisonment for those who are dangerous to society, we must admit that there is a difference between justice and revenge and that the line between the two are often blurred.

  8. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    Facebook Friend Lyn Novosel writes:

    Ok with me! Simple …do not commit a crime in the first place!

  9. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    Facebook Friend Sue Corcoran writes:

    Prison is for punishment and rehabilitation. Pamela Smart, for those who believe she is guilty, has more than served her punishment. If anyone got away with anything in the crime, it was Cecelia Pierce. Forgiveness and compassion are shown for so many in Pamelas situation, yet not Pamela. I believe it is purely down to her being used as a guinea pig, in the first ever gavel to gavel trial by media in the US. I wonder how different her trial would have been if that were not the case. I wonder if people would just look at her, like they do many others, and say 28 years is enough, and have some compassion.

  10. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    Facebook Friend George Barwood writes:

    Other countries have a much different approach, and I believe a better one. In Norway, the maximum sentence is 21 years, although it can be extended if the prison system determines that an offender is not rehabilitated by the end of his or her initial term. I think that is far superior. Often in the US the guilty get a much lesser sentence than the innocent, and I believe that’s the case here, it certainly cannot be ruled out.

  11. Diane Dimond on August 30, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Facebook Friend Elizabeth Blackburn writes:

    This country has lost its compassion and refuses to spend money for the benefit of its citizens. No one should be executed for their crimes of defense or mental illness.

  12. Carl S Bennett on October 26, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Diane you are a wonderful human being, The judicial system could learn much from your common sense approach …..

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