What could he do?

By Candace Marra

When Laci Peterson disappeared on December 24, 2002, Scott became the #1 suspect within an hour of law enforcement’s involvement. From that point until now, everything he has said and done has been scrutinized with the eye of a hungry media, fed by an accommodating police force that was all too eager to pin the crime on him. Yet I often encounter the argument that Scott brought suspicion on himself through his own behavior.

But did he? Is it possible that Scott could have behaved in such a way as to keep the suspicion off of himself? And how suspicious was his behavior, really? Was it truly suspicious, or have we just been told it was suspicious? I believe without a doubt that there is nothing Scott could have done to avoid the suspicion and resulting conviction. In fact, I find his behavior suspiciously unsuspicious.

“He Should Have Immediately Noticed Laci Was Missing”

On December 24, 2002, Scott went fishing in the San Francisco Bay at the Berkeley Marina. He and Laci had plans to go to Laci’s mom’s for a Christmas Eve dinner that evening. Scott arrived home at 4:45. Laci wasn’t home, although her land rover was still in the driveway. He grabbed a piece of pizza and headed toward the shower. He threw his clothes in the washer, and listened to his messages. He became alarmed when he heard a message from Laci’s stepdad, Ron Grantski, asking for whipped cream, since he had assumed Laci was over there. At 5:17, he called Laci’s mom. Of course, Laci was not there, and thus began the high-profile search for Laci.

I have heard criticism against Scott for his delay in noticing her missing. The argument is that Scott shouldn’t have taken a shower, or put his clothes in the washer when he saw that his wife wasn’t home. I fail to see anything suspicious about this. He assumed she was at her mom’s, until he got the message about the whipped cream. Since they were supposed to be there in less than two hours for dinner, was that such an unreasonable assumption? And what would a murderer have to gain by delaying another half hour, if he had already dumped her in the bay, many hours ago? The circumstances simply didn’t warrant an immediate jump to the conclusion that Laci had been abducted.

In fact, what would it have looked like if he had immediately jumped to that conclusion? Let’s say he got home at 4:45, and by 4:50 had already called to verify that she wasn’t at Sharon’s. What if he was immediately frantic? What if the police were called by 4:55? Would that really have looked less suspicious than what actually occurred?

I personally would have been more suspicious, because the first thought to run through my mind would be, how could he have known that soon? It’s not normal to immediately assume the worst has happened, especially when an adult is involved. It’s normal to assume the person went somewhere. Remember, there was no sign of any struggle or anything amiss in Scott’s house.

If he had immediately drawn the conclusion that something was wrong, the police and the media would have started raising the question, how did he know something was wrong so quickly, if he wasn’t the one who did it? They would have said that it was suspicious that he called so soon after getting home. They would have said it seemed a little too contrived, too rehearsed. They would have said it looked like he was just trying a little too hard to play the part of the innocent husband coming home and finding his wife missing. They would have reasoned that an innocent person would have assumed at first that nothing was wrong, and perhaps cleaned himself up a bit, maybe even taken a shower. No matter what time Scott called, the police and media would find a way to construe it suspiciously.

If given the opportunity, the media will do whatever it takes to use the circumstances surrounding Scott noticing Laci missing as an opportunity to cast Scott in a negative light. In fact, Scott’s neighbor, Karen Servas, actually provided the media with just such an opportunity. According to Karen’s preliminary testimony on November 13, 2003, Karen left her home at 5:05 on the evening of December 24, and observed that Scott’s truck was not in the driveway. Since the 5:17 time for Scott’s call to Sharon is documented, if we assume Scott arrived home within a minute of Karen’s departure, this would only have given Scott 12 minutes to notice Laci missing and call her mom.

Rather than question Karen’s time frame, the media and the public assumed that Scott must be a liar. According to the Modesto Bee:

“If Peterson arrived after 5:05 p.m., he faced a tight window to complete what he told police he did after returning home -- empty a mop bucket, undress, put the clothes he was wearing in the washing machine, eat pizza, shower and listen to phone messages -- before calling Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha.” (http://www.modbee.com/reports/peterson/prelim/story/7935511p-8811095c.html, Christmas Eve Timeline Key to Peterson’s Fate, by John Cote, Staff Writer).

So if Scott noticed Laci missing within 12 minutes, he was either a liar, or he noticed too soon. One way or another, Scott was going to come out looking guilty. Of course, we now know that Scott’s story is more credible than Karen Servas’, since she testified seven months later at the trial that she was mistaken about the time, and had actually left her house at 4:05 pm.

“He Didn’t Seem Very Upset About His Wife Missing”

Scott’s lack of emotion seems to be a favorite point for those who just “know in their gut” that he did it. Actually, I didn’t think he showed a lack of emotion. I saw two media interviews where he was really crying, one of which he had to end early because he was so emotional, and one in which they had to keep stopping the tape because he got so emotional at times. And of course, we didn’t see what emotions he showed in private. We do know that many of his in-laws and friends testified that he was distraught when he was looking for her. And there were times when he shed tears in court.

Regardless of how much he did show emotion, the consensus is that he did not show enough. Certainly, there were times, when he put on a pretty good face. He was seen smiling with friends at the candlelight vigil. He didn’t spend a lot of time on camera crying and begging the kidnappers to bring Laci home. Certainly, he spent most of his time in court without showing emotion.

Yet in his media interviews, we see a broken man who very much wants his wife back. The Jodi Hernandez and Diane Sawyer interviews can be viewed at these links, respectively:



He was quite emotional in these interviews. Yet just look at the public response:

“In television and newspaper interviews, Peterson shed crocodile tears. Laci's family waited in desperation for 116 days until the torso and foetus were found.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/women/story/0,3604,1374552,00.html, Let Him Die, December 16, 2004).

Goldman called Peterson's crying "crocodile tears" and said jurors likely noticed that Peterson's demeanor when he lied about minor points to the reporters — when he told Frey about his wife's disappearance, for example — was strikingly similar to when he asserted his innocence. (http://www.courttv.com/trials/peterson/100604_ctv.html, Prosecutors in Scott Peterson's murder trial turn pitiful start into powerful finale, by Harriet Ryan, Courttv, October 8, 2004).

I don’t understand. Was it because he didn’t show enough emotion at other times? Was it because it happened to be media interviews when he showed emotions, rather than in other public places? Are we to assume that he didn’t show emotion in private?

What if he had cried non-stop all the time? What if there was never a time when we saw him not crying? Perhaps he wouldn’t have been labeled a sociopath by armchair psychologists. This doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have been psychoanalyzed still the same. Constant crying, such as what the public apparently expected from Scott, is abnormal. Grief just doesn’t work that way. So most likely, the police and the media would have assumed that one of two things was happening: he was a great actor who could really turn on the tears, or he was displaying remorse. Either way, the media and the police would have found a way to construe an abundant expression of emotion to mean he was guilty, and the public would have eagerly agreed.

“He lied”

Scott’s lies are the other favorite point in the argument that Scott brought suspicion on himself. Of course, most of Scott’s lies pertained to either his affair or his whereabouts. And being a liar certainly does not make one a murderer. I often hear that Scott would have helped himself more by being upfront with the police about the affair from the beginning. While I don’t deny that this may have been the right thing to do, it certainly was a common response to the situation. In my editorial entitled, One More Reason Not to Commit Adultery, I went into detail about just how common it is for a man to lie about adultery, especially in circumstances such as Scott’s.

Even if Scott had told the truth from the very beginning, I’m not sure it would have done Scott any good. The police could have read into that that Scott was all too eager to say anything. They could have said that if he was innocent, he wouldn’t have wanted them to know about the affair in case Laci was still alive, for fear of her finding out. From this line of thought, they could easily have jumped to the conclusion that Scott knew Laci was already dead, and that he had nothing to lose by bringing up the affair. So either way, the affair was just one more area in which Scott was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.

“He Should Have Cut Amber Off Immediately”

Nothing has done more to hurt Scott’s case than his affair with Amber Frey, to be sure. Certainly, the affair did much more damage than any of the evidence in this case! So many times, I have read on the bulletin board that Scott should have abruptly stopped all communication with her, that the continued contact made him look so guilty. Of course, the media singled out the calls they could use to paint him in the most negative light possible. Not to mention that a careful analysis of those phone calls has revealed that she was the one doing most of the calling, that Scott was not seeking to romance her, and that Scott never talked to her at a time when he should have been searching for Laci.

I wonder what kind of spin the media would have come up with had Scott cut Amber off abruptly? The media was already effectively portraying Amber as a victim. And we know from the phone conversations that Amber had been hurt by married men before, and that Scott knew this. It would not have been hard at all for the media to plant in our minds that Scott didn’t care about anyone’s feelings but his own, and that anyone capable of being so uncaring was also capable of murder! To think that the media could have jumped to that conclusion is certainly no more preposterous than the fact that they did jump to the conclusion that anyone who would lie about an affair would also commit murder. And, it would have fit perfectly with the charge that Scott was a sociopath and possibly a narcissist.

It seems to me that there was no possible way that Scott could have handled Amber without the police, press, and public finding a way to construe it in a negative light. Once news of Amber came to light, Scott’s fate was sealed, and there was nothing he could do about it.

“If Only He’d Taken a Polygraph”

Another common argument is that if Scott had taken a polygraph and passed, he would have eliminated himself as a suspect. Of course, we know that polygraphs are unreliable, that the results can be doctored, and that they are inadmissible in court. Still, they are widely used and heavily depended upon by investigators. In light of the police and media spin, I believe that had Scott taken a lie detector test, one of two things would have happened: 1) The results would have been doctored or inaccurately reported, or 2) Scott would have passed, but the police would have said that he only passed because he is a sociopath and an experienced liar. In any event, they would have just glossed over the fact that he passed and continued to investigate him anyway. There was already enough spin against him in other areas.

Although it may seem unrealistic to think that a passed polygraph test could be ignored, this is not unheard of. In the cases below, the individuals in question passed lie detector tests, but were wrongly convicted anyway.

J. Scott Hornoff

J. Scott Hornoff was a police officer whose mistress was found murdered in her apartment. He had ended the affair just prior to her murder, and his fellow officers had found a note on her nightstand, written to Scott, begging him to continue the affair. He initially lied when they asked if he knew her, not wanting his wife to know about the affair. He very quickly came back, though, and told the truth. He passed a polygraph test and was temporarily eliminated as a suspect. Three years later, a new attorney general was elected, and he wanted to see this case solved. He ordered a re-investigation into Scott, and the results of his passed polygraph test had mysteriously disappeared. He eagerly offered to take another one, adding that he was willing to go through hypnosis, psychological testing, or anything that would help him clear himself. They re-administered the polygraph test, and because he could not remember details since so much time had passed, the results were inconclusive. He was wrongly convicted and incarcerated for six years until the real killer confessed to the crime.

(http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/not_guilty/scott_hornoff/index.html?sect=18, Tangled up in Blue: The Scott Hornoff Story, by Seamus McGraw, p. 5).

Kirstin Labato

Kirstin Labato was wrongly convicted of first degree murder after passing three separate polygraph tests. In addition, her mother, who was one of many witnesses to her alibi, also passed a polygraph test. This wrongful conviction happened in the absence of any evidence whatsoever.

Kirstin was a dancer in a strip club, and she was addicted to drugs. On the night of Memorial Day 2001, she was attacked by a man who intended to rape her. Her father had given her a knife and taught her some self-defense techniques, which she employed during the attack. She used the knife to cut her attacker in the groin area before escaping. Looking back, she saw that he was curled up on the ground crying, leading her to believe she had wounded him. She didn’t report the attack to the authorities because she figured she wouldn’t be believed, due to her lifestyle.

In July of the same year, she cleaned herself up and began a new life. She mentioned the attack to a teacher, who in turn reported it to the authorities. A murder had happened around that same time, involving a man who had been slashed in the groin area. Authorities contacted Kirstin and questioned her. She admitted to the attack, saying it was self-defense, not realizing they were talking about a completely different attack on a completely different person.

This “confession” was the only evidence they had. The murder occurred on a different night from when her incident occurred, and she had a very strong alibi, with several eyewitnesses. Forensic testing even pointed away from her. And even after she passed three separate lie detector tests, the investigation stayed focused on her, until she was eventually convicted for the crime. Obviously, the passed polygraph tests had no bearing on this investigation. (http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/justiceforkirstin)

With all of the suspicion that surrounded Scott, I find it very hard to believe that a polygraph, even if passed with flying colors, could really take suspicion off of Scott. A close-minded police force, media, and public had already determined that Scott was guilty. A passed polygraph only would have made him an experienced liar and sociopath in the eyes of all three.

“He Should Not Have Hidden From the Camera”

Scott frequently asserted that he did not want to be on camera because he wanted to keep the focus on Laci. While this may or may not be the way I would have handled Scott’s situation, it sounded like a reasonable enough idea. In addition, Kim Peterson of the Sund-Carrington Foundation, together with the his and Laci’s families, had helped Scott come to that decision. Furthermore, his attorney advised him to stay away from the media.

Many of the posters on the bulletin board have stated that Scott made himself more suspicious by avoiding the camera. They say that he should have used the press to plead for Laci’s safe return, that he should have been with the Rochas during the candlelight vigil, that he shouldn’t have shied away from the camera.

I just don’t see any benefit in Scott placing himself on the camera. The Laci Peterson case was the top story in the country for well over a year. Scott most certainly didn’t need to do anything to help keep the media attention on Laci. Furthermore, I think it is quite common to want to avoid the camera. All that press attention would be quite overwhelming to the average American who has never been in the limelight before. In fact, I think it is quite common in high profile cases for significant others to avoid the camera.

When Shasta and Dylan Groene were kidnapped, their father Steve Groene likewise avoided the camera. He issued a letter stating his desire to stay out of the limelight. In his letter, he even cited the same reason Scott gave for choosing to avoid the cameras:  “I have said all that I can say and know, and I do not want to take away from the resources to find my children.”  You can read the letter in its entirety here: http://crime.allinfoabout.com/news/groene/fatherstatement052405.html

While it was okay with the public that Steve Groene avoided the camera, it was not okay for Scott. And of course, when he did go on camera, his every word, mannerism, and emotional response was scrutinized, always to his detriment. He was branded a pathological liar from the start, so there was really no point in saying anything on camera anyway. The media interviews he did do actually worked against him, since the prosecution was allowed to play selected portions in court, amidst defense objections that the interviews should only have been played in their unedited forms.

Furthermore, guilt does not necessarily preclude someone from wanting to be in front of the camera. Susan Smith did three major media interviews in one day, only nine days after she had killed her two children, plus, when the story first broke, she had stood beside her husband while he pled on camera for the children’s safe return. (http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/famous/smith/confess_8.html?sect=7, Susan Smith, by Rachel Pergament, p. 8).

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that some murderers would believe that appearing on camera and playing the part of the grieving loved one would keep the public sympathetic rather than suspicious. And with the negative views the public perpetuated regarding Scott, I am quite certain that had Scott embraced the media attention, the media would immediately have spun this to show that Scott is so arrogant, and such a well-practiced liar, that he thought he could fool the public. This would have fit in beautifully with their “pathological liar,” “sociopath,” and “narcissist” labels.

"He Should Have Asserted His Innocence"

While Scott insisted in a conversation with Amber that his innocence would speak for itself, and therefore he didn’t have to say anything, I have met many who disagree with that sentiment. They believe that if Scott was truly innocent, he would not be able to sit quietly by and listen to others say he was guilty. Instead, as the argument goes, he would have wanted to testify on his own behalf, and he would have jumped up in a state of shock and dismay and shouted that he was innocent when the guilty verdict was read.

The first problem with these arguments is that they presume that Scott never stated that he was innocent. When offered a plea bargain for life instead of death, he turned it down. He asserted his innocence in press interviews, in police interviews, and in phone conversations with the Rochas and Amber. The very fact that he pled not guilty is also an assertion of innocence. His lawyer asserted he was innocent, and since his lawyer was acting on his behalf, Scott was asserting through his lawyer that he was innocent.

Many people who are innocent do not testify in their own defense. Scott Hornoff, who I discussed previously, is one example. Like Scott Peterson, Scott Hornoff was branded a liar, so he did not testify. Of course, we know he was found guilty at first, but he was later exonerated. So yes, you can be innocent and still decide not to testify in your own behalf. (http://www.truthinjustice.org/Hornoff_Exonerated.htm, Man to be Freed on Murder Rap, by Douglas Hadden, November 5, 2002)

Apparently, it’s also possible for a guilty person to testify in his own behalf, at least, Steven Rios’ jury thought so. Steven Rios was a police officer charged with and convicted of first degree murder. You can read his story here: http://www.showmenews.com/2005/May/20050520News010.asp

I fail to see how testifying in his own behalf could have helped Scott. Every word he had previously said had been used against him. He had been branded a pathological liar and a sociopath. Why testify when you own words are just going to be used as justification to convict you? Not to mention the fact that his own testimony could also be used against him in a future appeal. And most likely, had he testified in his own behalf, someone in the press would have said that an innocent person doesn’t need to assert his innocence, because the evidence should speak for itself!

Some still regard it as suspicious that he didn’t at least stand up and shout his innocence when the verdict was read. This would have been quite inconsistent with the rest of his behavior. I have no doubt that if Scott had had such an outburst, the press would have been all over it, saying that he is unpredictable and prone to uncontrolled outbursts. It would have been the perfect tool needed to confirm that the verdict was correct—he was capable of an uncontrolled outburst in court, therefore he was capable of uncontrollable behavior such as murder.

Conviction Was Inevitable

After the Laci Peterson case broke, Scott quickly became the most hated man in America. Because the police, media, and public assumed he was guilty, everything he said and did was interpreted through the filter of guilt. No matter what he did or said, his actions or lack of actions were looked upon as verification of his guilt. Alternate explanations were dismissed as excuses.

There’s a saying about seeing things through rose-colored glasses. When you wear rose-colored glasses, everything around you has a tint of rose. You are incapable of seeing anything without the color being distorted by the rose tint. In Scott’s case, the police, media, and public wore guilt-colored glasses. It was impossible for them to see anything Scott did in any light other than guilty. If he showed emotion, he was faking it; if he didn’t show emotions, he was a sociopath. This is but one example, yet it is indicative of how the mindset worked. There is always a way to twist something to look either guilty or innocent, and in Scott’s case, with the all-too-eager help of the media, the police managed to convince the public early on that Scott killed Laci, therefore everything Scott did was viewed through guilt-colored glasses.

Only the media had the power to remove those glasses, but the media instead used its power to reinforce them. As a result, there was nothing Scott could say or do that would not somehow be regarded as a confirmation of his guilt. There was no evidence that could be found that could have overcome this. Perhaps the real killer coming forward would have caused some to realize they were wearing distorted glasses, but most likely, even that would not have been enough to keep many from continuing to assume that Scott must somehow be involved.

In light of this, Scott’s conviction in the face of no evidence is not at all surprising. Obviously, the jurors were wearing the guilt-colored glasses that had been freely distributed by the media and couldn’t help seeing everything presented in the trial through this distorted vision. I guess Bill Lockyer was right, after all. This case was a slam dunk.