The Lynching of Scott Peterson
By Candace Marra
September 18, 2005
The angry crowd jeered wildly as the police hauled the prisoner to jail. The mob of 300 people seemed impatient to see this person hang for the terrible crimes they knew he had committed. The police could scarcely make their way through the angry mob. This suspect was not a black man in the post-civil war deep south. This suspect was not Billy the Kid or some other infamous outlaw from the Old West. This suspect was a middle-class white man in California in the year 2003. His name was Scott Peterson.
It wasn’t the last time Scott would face a crowd reminiscent of the lynch mobs from days of old. A similar crowd gathered outside the courthouse to await his trial verdict a year and seven months later. This crowd cheered so loudly it could be heard in the upstairs courtroom. Another angry mob waited outside for his death verdict following the penalty phase of the trial, a month later, again, cheering the decision.
Sadly, mankind has demonstrated a penchant for witnessing and even carrying out cruel executions throughout history. Executions have often been treated as a form of entertainment, which even the most civilized of cultures have succumbed to. This is a tragic display of one of the darkest aspects of the human psyche. It must be at the core of human nature, because the lynch mob mentality has reared its ugly head in all ages of society, and in all types of civilization, from the most primitive to the most civilized.
The Roman Empire
Although the average Roman citizen appeared no more bloodthirsty than you or I, the ancient Roman Empire is most often remembered for its gladiatorial games. These games consisted of men fighting, literally to the death. These events were so popular that people would start lining up the night before, and fights would often break out between latecomers vying for the last seats. These events were such an important part of Roman culture, that they were free to the public, a right, rather than a privilege. (http://www.roman-empire.net/society/soc-games.html, Illustrated History of The Roman Empire: The Games).
Likewise, public executions enjoyed large crowds and involved gruesome deaths for those being executed. Many times, the criminals had to act out the part of a criminal or martyr in a play, which would end with his execution. The method of execution often involved an attack of a wild animal, such as a lion or a bear. Whatever method was employed, it was always violent and gruesome. And the more violent and gruesome it was, the more it pleased the crowd. (Ibid.)
And who can forget the awful scene of the angry mob that demanded the crucifixion of Christ? While this was a Jewish crowd, the execution itself was carried out by the Roman government. Crucifixion was a popular means of execution for the Romans. Crosses laden with dying criminals would often dot the countryside for miles.
Even a society as civilized as England found its citizens unable to resist this primal behavior. Executions were carried out at Tyburn, where a triple gallows had been built, and as many as 24 condemned prisoners could be hanged at one time. Crowds regularly numbered in the tens of thousands, and in the most high-profile cases, over 100,000. The crowds would follow the carts carrying the condemned, cheering all the way to the gallows throughout the two-hour trip. (http://www.evergreen.loyola.edu/~cmitchell/tyburn.htm, Executions at Tyburn, by Dr. Charlie Mitchell).
Perhaps no country’s history provides a sadder commentary on this primal behavior than our own. This phenomenon of apparent bloodthirstiness in otherwise non-violent, everyday people rose to prominence during a number of eras in United States history.
In 1692, the infamous Salem witch trials took place. What an embarrassing blemish on our history this has become! Although these witch hunts occurred only over the course of months, they resulted in the wrongful executions of twenty innocent people, the execution of one man who refused to stand trial, the deaths of four innocent people while imprisoned, the execution of two dogs (yes, they were accused of being witches), and the wrongful imprisonment of about 200 others. It all started when a few pre-teen and teenage girls who were involved in fortune-telling (considered by the Puritans a form of witchcraft itself), began to make accusations against other people for being witches. Some of these girls had suffered from strange convulsions and began accusing unpopular people in the village of being witches and placing spells on them. Their charges were believed in this Puritan community, and the series of farce trials and wrongful executions ensued. Thankfully, skepticism won out in the end, but until that time, the thirst for blood was rampant, and the public outrage was surprisingly absent. In fact, this all happened in full view of the public eye, with its full approval. (http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_ACCT.HTM, An Account of Events in Salem, by Douglas Linder).
During the 1700’s, there was no organized criminal justice system in place, so many citizens took it upon themselves to enact their own versions of justice. These vigilantes would most often form organizations that would mete out terrible punishments for various crimes. These punishments included “tarring and feathering,” blacklisting, and various methods of cruel, gruesome death. It wasn’t enough for these bloodthirsty people to see to it that justice was done—they were often only satisfied when they subjected the accused to slow, tortuous deaths. Even worse, there was no due process to be sure they had the right person. Death by hanging was a popular execution method with these groups, especially as they began to execute mass numbers of people. The groups came to be known as “lynch mobs.” (http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/300/300lect10.htm, Vigilantism, Vigilante Justice, and Victim Self-Help).
Lynch mobs became increasingly prominent in the deep south during the post-civil war era, Most of the victims were young black men, who had been accused of murder, theft, or even minor, non-violent crimes. Often, there was no crime committed at all. Blacks were hated during this terrible time in our history, and as a result, suffered some of the cruelest punishments ever administered in the history of our great nation. The crowds generally numbered from 50-500 people, who would cheer as the victim was humiliated, tortured, and killed, through the cruelest of methods, including slow burning, cutting off of body parts (including castration), hanging, beating, or whatever imaginative methods they could come up with. It is hard for me to comprehend how a crowd of average people could watch something like that and cheer. Even law enforcement enjoyed the show. The courts did nothing to try to end these brutalities. The Ku Klux Klan was well-known for public lynchings, although the lynchings began long before it formed. Often, today, when we think of the KKK, we think of the cruel lynchings, yet this group was no worse than the average citizens who participated and/or cheered on these lynchings prior to its formation. (http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/mass/lynching/index_1.html?sect=7, Lynchings in America, by Mark Gado).
Modern Day Executions
Today, in America, executions are carried out in private, generally with little fanfare. There are, of course, exceptions. Many of the high profile cases that result in the death penalty present yet another opportunity for Americans to show that they have still not overcome their primal, bloodthirsty tendencies.
Who can forget the scene outside the prison in Florida, where Ted Bundy was executed? Ted Bundy admitted to the brutal rapes and slayings of 28 women, and may have been guilty of much more. Certainly, if anyone deserved the death penalty, it was Ted Bundy. But is the execution of a criminal something to celebrate? The crowds outside the prison had picket signs, which read, “Hey, Ted, You’re Dead,” and “Thank God It’s Fryday,” among other things. People shot off fireworks. They cheered, as if they were at a ball game and their team had just won. Brutal murderer that he was, he was still a human being. How is it that we can allow ourselves to harden so much that we fail to pity a man who has caused himself to suffer the death penalty?
If Scott Peterson were to be executed tomorrow, could we expect any different? Based on the mob-like mentality of the crowds that have accompanied Scott’s arrest, guilty verdict, and death verdict, I think not. These crowds seemed as if they were just daring someone to set Scott free so they could kill him themselves. One way or another, they were going to see that Scott Peterson was punished.
Because we now have an organized justice system in place, there is no more room for vigilantism. We occasionally hear about people who have been arrested and prosecuted after trying to take the law into their own hands. Public lynchings, in the true sense of the term, are a thing of the past, just another dark mark on our history.
Yet vigilantism has not died. Vigilantism was alive and well the day Scott Peterson was hauled to jail. It was alive and well on November 12, 2004, when the guilty verdict was read. It was alive and well on December 13, 2004, when the death verdict was read. While it is true that nobody lynched Scott Peterson on any one of those days, the crowds that gathered demonstrated the mentality behind this type of behavior, and the capability of doing so.
The vigilante mindset does not allow for due process, or for the wheels of justice to do their work in its own time. People of this mindset want their version of justice, and they want it now. (http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/300/300lect10.htm, Vigilantism, Vigilante Justice, and Victim Self-Help).
It was the vigilante mindset that caused people to give themselves permission to assume Scott’s guilt without proof. It was the vigilante mindset that led people to stand outside the jail and the courthouse and cheer his punishment. I hate to think what this vigilante mindset may have led to had Scott Peterson been acquitted on November 12, 2004. Would he have survived his first day of freedom?
Trying to describe the way I felt when I heard the cheering of the crowd when the guilty verdict was read, and when I heard about the crowd’s response to the death verdict, is difficult. It was sickening. How can anyone rejoice in the death of another?
While I believe Scott is innocent, I do not see how thinking he is guilty justifies this celebratory mood surrounding his circumstances. I believe Ted Bundy is guilty, and of much worse crimes than Scott was convicted of. I even agree that the death penalty was appropriate for him. Yet let me assure you, I was not celebrating the day he was executed. I see execution as a somber, tragic, yet necessary process. I was sad for Ted Bundy, very sad, not because I felt sorry that he had been given the death penalty, but because I felt sorry that a man with so much potential for good, threw it all away. I felt sad that it had to come to that. I felt the same way about Timothy McVeigh, and I often feel the same sadness for people who even get life in prison. Yes, I want justice to be done. I believe in punishing those who commit crimes. But it needs to be handled in a sober manner. It is indeed a tragic thing when a human being has chosen a lifestyle that led him to deserve such a punishment.
In Scott’s case, no one was more hurt by the murder of Laci and Conner, than Sharon Rocha. I also don’t believe anyone was more convinced of Scott’s guilt than Sharon Rocha. I know that Sharon supported the death penalty for Scott, but her reaction to the death verdict stood in stark contrast to the bloodthirsty crowd below. She cried. She stated, rather plainly, that this was not a victory for anyone. It was not even closure for her. I wonder how the crowd’s cheers made her feel?
We do not live in a society where lynch mobs form and lynch people. We, do however, live in a society where lynch mobs form. We live in a society in which the people we rub shoulders with every day could very well be of the same primal, bloodthirsty persuasion, as those of the Roman Empire, or of the spectators in early modern England, or of the lynch mobs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We live in a world where many are not sad to see their fellow man put to death, even without proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is actually guilty. You don’t have to take my word for it. The crowd outside the courthouse on November 12, 2004, says it all.
David Paul Morris / Getty Images