Another case of convicting ahead of facts

Mercury News

Posted on Wed, Jan. 29, 2003

I'm going to tiptoe onto dangerous ground by posing a modest question:


What if Scott Peterson didn't do it?


You know Peterson: He's the Modesto man whose pregnant wife, Laci, went missing Christmas Eve. He has a murky alibi and had a girlfriend on the side. It looks bad.  But it also looked bad for Gary Condit, the former congressman who was at the eye of another sensational missing-person case. Like Peterson, Condit was convicted in the court of public opinion without facing criminal charges.


A lot of folks were convinced Condit whacked another Modesto woman, Chandra Levy, who disappeared in 2001. Police in Washington, D.C., never called Condit a suspect, but they kept hauling him in for questions, searched his condo, even took a DNA sample. Ah-ha, we murmured. Condit must have something to hide.


And as it turned out, he did -- but not everything we thought. Condit had a tacky affair with the love-struck intern, who it now seems might have simply picked the wrong jogging path. Her remains were found last spring in a D.C. park where two other young joggers also were attacked; her slaying is unsolved.


Condit paid for his stubborn refusal to come clean about the affair: His career was demolished. But Condit's sexual adventuring and media blunders didn't make him a murderer.


Scott Peterson also slept with a woman who wasn't his wife, he admitted on national TV Tuesday. That might make Peterson despicable, but not necessarily a killer.  But you wouldn't know that, listening to the talking heads. After the ``other woman,'' Amber Frey, went public last week, CNN trotted out a psychiatrist who knowingly said men who kill their wives are usually motivated by financial problems.


And I kept thinking, ``We don't even know if Laci Peterson is dead,'' let alone anything about the couple's finances.


Presumed innocent?

Now, logic tells us she probably is dead. And logic suggests that, if Peterson lied about the affair, he might be lying about other things, as his wife's family now charges. But Peterson, like Condit, might have lied for reasons besides killing.


Maybe the young fertilizer salesman froze in the glare of the tabloid spotlights. Maybe he worried the public would stop caring about his wife if he admitted he'd been sleeping around. In fact, many volunteers dropped the search effort once word of the affair broke.


Think if Peterson is innocent: Adding to the horror of a missing wife and child, he's now branded a murderer, an indelible stigma.


Sensationalism sells

I guess what troubles me most about the Peterson case has less to do with him than with the rest of us.


It's the cops who said they'd found a possible body in the Berkeley Marina, where Peterson claims to have been fishing the day his wife disappeared, then later announced: ``Whoops, it was just an old anchor.'' Deliberately or otherwise, the Modesto police have contributed to the frenzy of speculation by leaking details, then refusing to comment.


It's the media who've run with hazy reports about Peterson taking out a life insurance policy on his wife without mentioning that it's not unusual for new parents to do so -- or noting that, if Peterson took out such a policy last summer, it was months before Frey says she met him.


And it's anyone who clucks about Frey's teary confession without asking if she might have an ax to grind.


If Peterson is charged and found guilty, let's hang him from the highest tree. Until that happens, though, let's remember other celebrity murder cases: people such as Dr. Sam Shepherd or Australia's Lindy Chamberlain, who were tried in the media, spat upon, sentenced to hard time and then, whoops again, had their convictions overturned.


With our nation in the midst of a debate about guilt, fairness and the death penalty, is it too much to ask for a little due process for Peterson?