Rumors leave lives in limbo; Experts say Peterson case shows risks of premature judgment

By M.S.Enkoji -- Bee Staff Writer Published 2:15 am PST Saturday, January 25, 2003

In the search for a missing Modesto woman, about the only thing police will say publicly is that her disappearance on Christmas Eve is suspicious and they suspect foul play. And her husband isn't a suspect.

Yet Scott Peterson, a 30-year-old fertilizer salesman, finds himself immersed in a swirl of suspicion that began soon after the day he said he last saw his pregnant wife, 27-year-old Laci Peterson.

That swirl intensified Friday when a Fresno-area woman admitted having had a recent romantic relationship with Scott Peterson.  Premature conclusions about guilt based on little information have cropped up before, sometimes placing the targets in a longtime limbo that destroys lives and careers, say those whose job it is to examine evidence or decide who is a suspect.

"The public gets a couple bits of information, and they condemn him.  There needs to be patience on the part of the public and any suspects and investigators," said Brent Turvey, forensic scientist and author of "Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis."

An attorney who represents several people he claims were unjustly labeled said it is impossible to salvage a reputation stained by public speculation.

Remember Richard Jewell?

"Richard Jewell was, in fact, a hero," said Lin Wood, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in libel.  "He is never remembered as the hero; he is always remembered as the one who was accused of the bombing at Olympic Park."

Jewell was a 34-year-old security guard working the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta when he found a knapsack containing a pipe bomb and quickly evacuated people.  One person was killed.

Within days, his name was leaked as a suspect.  Jewell was hounded for months.  Then the U.S. Justice Department cleared him.  Still, he couldn't go to a ballgame without getting heckled.  His dream of a law enforcement career became a public joke.

He has gotten settlements in libel suits and has finally found a job with a police department in rural Georgia, said Wood.  Still, "He's tainted goods."

Wood also represents former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit of Ceres, and Patsy and John Ramsey, parents of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, who was found murdered in their Boulder, Colo., home, in 1996.  Condit's political career unraveled after he balked at revealing his involvement with a missing former intern.  Police have repeatedly said Condit is not a suspect in the disappearance of Chandra Levy, whose body was found in a Washington, D.C., park last May.  Condit is now unemployed, said Wood, and no one will hire John Ramsey.

Police continue to search for Laci Peterson, who was expecting her first child on Feb. 10.

Scott Peterson told police that Laci Peterson was planning to walk their dog as he departed for a fishing expedition and she wasn't home when he returned that evening.

Since then, his behavior, his demeanor and his private life have been fodder for speculation.

Modesto police, who have all but refused to talk about Peterson, said they were forced to call a news conference Friday because reporters were calling Frey and asking about her relationship with Scott Peterson.

After Amber Frey's statement confirming the relationship, police declined further comment.

Peterson's mother has said she is aghast that people assign guilt because her son chose to go fishing on a holiday morning.

"My advice would be to any young man -- don't go fishing on a holiday," said Jacqueline Peterson.

The timing of the fishing trip is, at best, a red flag for investigators, said legal experts.

"This is what is particularly dangerous: The conjecture and the discussion can't substitute for real evidence," said Ruth Jones, a former New York City prosecutor and a professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

Investigators will turn first to those who know the victim, she said, and it can be a cruel filter.

"Families generally have secrets that will not withstand the light of day," she said.  "It's one thing to admit secrets to the police and prosecutors.  It's another to tell things that are going on the front page."

In this day of 24/7 cable news where an event plays nonstop, nationwide, someone caught in sexual misconduct that is connected to a death has no chance of redeeming his or her reputation, said Wood, the libel attorney.

"You've got these talking heads who are constantly analyzing and speculating and so on," he said.

Today, Wood says, if a handsome, wealthy, married politician, driving home from a party, got in a car accident that killed an attractive female passenger, the politician's career would end then and there.

In 1969, however, Sen. Ted Kennedy's career was only stalled by the accident near Martha's Vineyard that killed campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, Wood noted.

Laci Peterson's family has said police have shown them a photograph of Scott Peterson with another woman and told them about a $250,000 life insurance policy he took out last summer.

"The reason people are intrigued with economic things and alternative relationships is those are the elements to create motive, but motive alone is insufficient to arrest someone," said Jones.

An insurance policy could be evidence, but it could have also been an expectant father's wise choice, said another McGeorge professor.

"People are often caught up in a web of suspicion when they are doing something perfectly innocent," said David W. Miller, who specializes in evidence.

Scott Peterson's decision to avoid public forums means nothing, said Turvey, the profiler, who is based in Sitka, Alaska.

Turvey was once involved in a case in which the siblings of a murder victim were seen laughing, yet were blameless.

"They just had no idea how to handle it," said Turvey. The so- called "right" reaction doesn't mean much, either, he said.

In 1994, Susan Smith, a South Carolina mother of two boys, put on a nonstop show of public grief, complete with sobs, as she begged for an unknown carjacker to return her two sons.  Within months, she was on trial for rolling her car -- with the two boys in it -- into a lake.  Separated from her husband, Smith drowned them because they proved to be extra baggage in her relationship with a man, prosecutors said.

She is serving a life sentence.

Miller, of McGeorge, suggested that maybe there should be a way to get an official declaration of innocence for those who have never even been arrested.

Even if there is a trial, "not guilty" never seems to be enough, according to the son of the central figure in a celebrated case of fractured justice.

In 1954, Ohio osteopath Dr. Sam Sheppard told police he was awakened by his pregnant wife's screams.  He told police he struggled with a bushy-haired intruder who knocked him out.

Sheppard's private life -- including an affair -- exploded into a sensational trial that later spawned a television series and a movie, both named "The Fugitive," though Sheppard never ran away.

He was convicted, but in 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case that pretrial publicity had prevented him from getting a fair trial.  He was acquitted in a second trial and released after a decade in prison.

But Sheppard never managed to successfully restart his medical career, and at one point he turned to pro wrestling and drinking.

"He died a broken man at 46 as a pauper," said his son, Sam Reese Sheppard, a 55-year-old Oakland dental hygienist.

The younger Sheppard has become an advocate against the death penalty and for a justice system that publicly acknowledges mistakes.

"Once you're accused," he said, "and wrongfully convicted, there's no way to clear your name.