“Justice is the fundamental law of society.”—Thomas Jefferson, 1816
Two names. Two deaths. One captivated nation. What is it about the murder of Laci Peterson and her baby that has transfixed the United States of America? As tragic as Laci Peterson’s demise might seem, it pales in comparison to the woes facing the populous on a global scale—war, terrorism, famine, disease, tyranny, and genocide. In every newspaper in every American town, you can easily find stories much more horrific than the murders in Modesto. In California, a family of four perishes in a highway accident; in New Jersey, two young mothers die when their elevator’s cable suddenly snaps. Yet it’s the case of Laci Peterson that has succeeded in riling the public and dominating the media headlines. Why is this? And what does this say about us?
For the two or three people left on this planet who are unfamiliar with the Laci Peterson murder mystery, Laci Peterson was the young wife of Scott Peterson—a pleasant enough looking fellow but certainly not someone of any fame, wealth, or renown. She was eight months pregnant when her husband—just before Christmas—allegedly decided to go on a fishing trip 90 miles outside of town. When he came home later that day, he claimed that his wife was missing, apparently the victim of some sort of an abduction. The police and the media dove headfirst into the Laci Peterson investigation, searching for clues and saturating the public with all sorts of information. While the more established news outlets—from The New York Times to CNN—devoted an inordinate supply of resources to the Peterson story, it was The National Enquirer who broke many of the more salacious details, including evidence that Scott Peterson enjoyed an extramarital sexual relationship with mother of one, Amber Frey. Discovery of another woman, coupled with the improbable explanation of a last minute fishing trip, effectively sealed Scott Peterson’s guilt in the arena of public opinion. By Easter, Laci’s body (as well as the body of their unborn baby) had washed ashore… in the same area where Scott Peterson claimed to have been fishing. His arrest quickly followed and most reasonable people find it more likely than not that he committed spousal murder.
But why did this one case of spousal murder spark so much attention? Alan Dershowitz, legal scholar and liberal activist, pointed out during the O.J. Simpson trial that 1,500 Americans are murdered by their spouse each year and two to four million spousal assaults occur annually. Certainly, among the 1,500 murder victims, hundreds of these murder victims were pregnant at the time of their demise—and all these deaths are personally tragic for all involved. The horrible truth is that Laci Peterson’s death wasn’t a cultural anomaly. It didn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s not like the penis-decapitation of John Bobbit—a crime so bizarre that we couldn’t help but watch. It’s not like the O.J. Simpson case where other issues, including racism, police incompetence, and celebrity justice were an issue. It’s not like the impeachment of President Clinton, where serious constitutional questions were prevalent. The Laci Peterson murder is what it is and nothing more: A grizzly act of violence against a woman and child who deserved so much better.
Is the nonstop media coverage good for Laci’s family? I doubt it. No one wants to be reminded of their heartache on every news channel in America. Nobody wants to see their dearly departed’s face splashed atop tawdry newspaper tabloids in the grocery store’s checkout lanes. And the media’s obsession with Laci Peterson has so thoroughly tainted the jury pool that it’s difficult to imagine Scott Peterson receiving a fair trial anywhere on planet earth. This bodes well for Scott’s legal defense, for the more irregularities that exist in a trial, the more possibilities there are to explore in appeal.
Blaming the media, however, is a copout. The media is a dollar-driven animal; when we stop buying, they stop reporting. The reason why FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, and the news magazines are devoting so much time and energy to the Laci Peterson murder is because they’re catering to their consumers. As long as Laci Peterson delivers higher ratings (and ad rates) than Algerian earthquakes or inter-political partisan bickering, the Peterson case will be discussed, dissected, and devaluated on a perverse continuum. Blaming the media is like a heroin addict blaming a drug dealer… when the guiltiest party is the one who demands the fix. The 24-hour cable news climate is also a contributing factor to the nonstop coverage; had a case similar to Laci Peterson’s occurred in the 1980s, a periodic sound bite on the nightly news and a page two story in the local paper would’ve been sufficient. But now, with information being regurgitated by the half-hour, new details must constantly be revealed, lest the coverage seem dull and dated. And if no new details exist… old details are rehashed in slightly new ways, mostly in the form of speculation. “Breaking news on CNN: Scott Peterson had a new haircut today. What does it mean? Are his lawyers testing which hairdo will works best for a jury? Did he get a crew cut to eliminate the rest of his blonde hair? Does it signal a new flurry of erratic behavior? We ask hair specialist Christophe for his take…”
Our fixation of the Peterson case reveals us for who we are: Voyeuristic, macabre, speculative, and shortsighted for sure… but also caring. Americans have emotionally connected with Laci Peterson and her family and sincerely care about how this case unfolds. Television has a way of making us share the grief of others, to make us feel as if their loss is our loss. Laci Peterson was an attractive young lady with an infectious smile and as pure, it seems, as the driven snow. This case is so much more than a detached populous rubbernecking a car crash; this is an outraged public demanding justice for an abominable act of animalistic carnage. And the public has decided that Scott Peterson is the culprit.
As a lawyer, I’m familiar with the laws and the processes that govern society. As a freethinking man, I’m also cognitive of my own notions of right and wrong. I agree with most of the legal principles that form as the basis for Western law. I agree that all people deserve competent legal counsel, for it would be immoral to confiscate a person’s property, freedom, or even his life without an able-minded advocate arguing on his behalf. That being said, I wouldn’t represent Scott Peterson for $10 million dollars. The reason I never became a defense lawyer is that I never desired to utilize my intellect and education to liberate from bondage the dregs of humanity. And I think this is how most Americans feel—there’s no overriding question of guilt or innocence; only the culmination of a protracted process. Scott Peterson is guilty of a ghastly atrocity and those who enable his liberation are guilty by association. Of course, we don’t know definitively if Scott Peterson is guilty; nobody saw him murder his wife or dispose of the body. But we know that it’s more likely that Scott Peterson committed the crime than the culprit being a roving gang of Satanists—a theory floated by Peterson’s lawyers. And public opinion, of course, is utterly unencumbered by legal entanglements.
We care about Laci Peterson because of who she was and because we sympathize with her untimely demise—but there’s also another reason. We also care about justice… especially in the aftermath of 9/11. The one thing “old” Europe continually forgets about the United States of America—why we went after Saddam and why we’ll scour the four corners of the earth to hunt down the thugs of al-Qaeda—is that justice matters. Our Founding Fathers didn’t toss tea into the Boston Harbor because the tea tax jeopardized their livelihood; they did so because taxation without representation was unjust. Justice was and still is the cornerstone of our democracy.
Unless justice is served—and unless Scott Peterson never again walks outside the prison walls—the public will not be satisfied.
And neither, I imagine, will her family.