For the past couple months, I’ve had a feeling of guilt over presuming someone else’s guilt.
This started 15 years ago back when I was the new morning guy at KHOP in Modesto, California. You probably don’t know much about Modesto. If the small city’s name does ring a bell, there’s a 99% chance it’s because you remember the story of the horrendous murder of Laci Peterson. The only thing you could possibly otherwise know it for is it was the setting for the movie American Graffiti. But you’re probably not old enough to remember that movie. I’m not. And I’m old.
My time in Modesto was too long. The people were nice. Really nice. Generous, kind, down to earth hard working people. But the city itself was brutally dull. I have two prominent memories of life in Modesto. A nearly constant breathtaking sour odor of cow manure on the fields forced me to keep a t-shirt in my car 24/7 to put over my face when I was driving. And then there was the black cloud that was the Laci Peterson murder.
Fortunately Modesto was in the shadow of some pretty great places like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Monterey, wine country and San Francisco. Weekend road trips became essential. Another guy my age seemed to want to escape his Modesto life too. He had a miserable job selling that cow manure. And a baby was on the way he didn’t want. At least that’s what TV news reports led me to believe. Scott Peterson was so desperate to get out, he murdered his pregnant wife so he could run off with his petite blond girlfriend who lived 100 miles away. That was the Modesto PD narrative.
I bought it hook, line and sinker. So did my audience. I remember a coworker from our country station who got to know Scott coming up to us using two fingers to point at his eyes and said “I looked into his eyes. He didn’t do it.” He’d later change his tune, as Laci’s family did, when Scott’s secret girl on the side came forward.
Seeing Laci’s mother cry out in pain moved everyone. Everyone. We all felt her pain and connected with her so deeply that what she believed, we believed without question.
The trial was long, but the public got the result the media convinced them they wanted. Jury members who didn’t think Scott was guilty were removed and he got the death penalty. There was a creepy celebration in the streets. It was over.
It’s 15 years later. Modesto is a memory. The case was a memory. But a TV series on A&E, for the first time, is giving equal time to both sides of the story. Any time given to the defense’s side of story was an asterisk in the TV movies and endless barrage of Dateline NBC type rehashes of the soap opera version of the Scott and Laci drama. Any loopholes in the script were ignored or glossed over. Cheating husband. Pregnant wife. Hot secret girlfriend. Murder. Conviction. Closure. Roll the credits.
That closure, by the way, was only for you and I. Onlookers like us were allowed to move on. Scott and Laci’s family and friends have had to live without them ever since.
Back then, anyone who questioned Scott’s obvious guilt was looked at with a raised eyebrow. How could he be innocent? He lied constantly.
During the trial, we had a woman as a guest on the morning show who did the unthinkable. She presumed Scott’s innocence. Our justice system insists on it. Few did it. We already saw OJ get off. None of us wanted something like that to ever happen again. But this woman who ran ScottIsInnocent.com erased emotion and looked just at the facts of the case. Oh sure. We heard her out. We were even quite respectful as I listen back to the interview now. But off and on the air, we dismissed her as someone who just probably had some misguided affection for Scott. He was a good looking dude. She seemed cold and weird. She must be, we thought. After all, she thought Scott had nothing to do with it.
Forgotten and suppressed details about the investigation are just now starting to make us think analytically and not emotionally. My disgust isn’t gone of hearing Scott Peterson’s voice as he lied to his girlfriend about being at the Eiffel Tower while he was at a vigil for his missing pregnant wife. It’s all I needed back then to convict him. But now that time has passed, the ability to separate emotion from fact is easier.
There are too many unanswered questions. If Scott killed Laci during the night, who was on the computer shopping for an umbrella stand with sunflowers on it that morning… and would Scott really watch Martha Stewart for a lemon meringue recipe instead of trying to get rid of the body? What about the people who say they saw Laci walking the dog? What about the guy at the marina who saw nothing in Scott’s boat? If Scott did kill her, how did he get rid of every shred of evidence in a matter of minutes? What about the science of how he’d have sunk his tiny boat if he tried to dispose of Laci’s body in the bay? What about the police saying a burglary happened across the street 2 days after Laci went missing… when media crews covering her disappearance would have seen it happen? What about the evidence that says the baby was alive in January? Would Scott really take time to send Christmas messages to his boss and watch videos of how to build work tools instead of focusing on getting rid of the body?
These are just a sample of the questions you’ll have after watching this series. It’s troubling. I still want to believe Scott did it – if only for Laci’s family because they are convinced of it. I don’t want them to have to go through any more pain than they already have. In fact, I’m sure the pain has never stopped for them. And I also want to still believe Scott did it so an innocent man who lost his wife didn’t lose a good chunk of his own life. If Scott is innocent, can you imagine waking up every morning in prison, wasting away waiting to die, while someone is out there walking free after murdering your pregnant wife?
Two words will inevitably come into your vocabulary while watching “The Murder of Laci Peterson” on A&E – reasonable doubt.
Scott Peterson cheated. He lied. He was selfish. He was weak. But when you erase all those emotional judgments and look at the lack of science and fact behind why he’s woken up in prison waiting to be put to death every day for 15 years, try to answer ALL of those questions with certainty. You can’t.
I’m not convinced Scott Peterson is innocent. It’s just now that I’m 50% sure I was 100% right.