Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBSNews.com.
If you took time out of your busy day Friday to monitor developments in the Scott Peterson murder trial, I feel a little sorry for you. You pretty much wasted your time. Apart from being reminded of how much lawyers and judges can talk without actually saying anything, you certainly didn't learn anything about the merits of the case against Peterson or about the defense we are likely to see. Breathless cable coverage aside, in fact, you didn't really learn anything that offers much insight even into how the case is likely to proceed from this early stage to trial.
Friday was a day for process, not substance in the Laci Peterson case. It was a day for what lawyers and journalists call "inside baseball" and what is more charitably described as "satellite" litigation that is only tangentially connected to the core of the case. It was merely a housecleaning sort of a day in court, and, given the amount of saturation coverage such an unimportant day brought, it staggers the mind to think how overwhelming the coverage is going to get when the cable nets start giving us "All Laci, All the Time" during trial.
What happened in court? Nothing, really. The judge wisely refused for now to release the autopsy results on Laci Peterson and her unborn child. The judge also refused for now to impose a gag order on the lawyers in the case; a sign, perhaps, that this judges knows such an order probably would be futile anyway given the circumstances of this zoo-like case. And the judge also refused a request by journalists to listen to police wiretaps on Scott Peterson's telephone, but gave those journalists 10 days to appeal the ruling before the tapes are turned over to the defense and prosecutors. If you consider a trial as being at the heart of a case, what happened Friday was a pedicure, nothing more.
Take the autopsy fight, for example. For now, Stanislaus County Superior Court Jduge Al Girolami has decided that more harm than good would come from releasing to the world the grisly results contained in the two autopsy reports. It's a ruling that rankles prosecutors, who want the reports out now in order to counter the effect that certain leaked information about the reports generated last week in favor of the defense. It's a ruling that rankles certain journalists, who want to be able to make public more information about the case. And it's a ruling that rankles those news consumers who have a morbid curiosity about what may or may not have happened to Laci Peterson and her unborn child.
But it's not a ruling that impacts upon the substance of the case. The autopsy reports are still the autopsy reports and nothing the judge could have decided Friday would have changed their content, their evidentiary value or their ultimate impact at trial. The reports will come out sooner rather than later anyway – my guess is they will be front and center during the preliminary hearing in July – and then everyone will be able to spin their contents all over again. The fight, then, was over the timing of their release and, prosecutors' arguments aside, that's just not a fight that is going to determine Scott Peterson's fate.
Likewise, the fight over whether a gag order ought to be put in place will have no impact upon the case. First of all, no one pays much attention to gag orders, anyway, at least in my own experience with high-profile trials. Ever heard of a judge holding a lawyer in contempt for violating a gag order? I know I have, but I cannot remember when or in what circumstances. It just doesn't happen very often unless the violation is so blatant and egregious that the judge's very honor is threatened. The lawyers in the Peterson case, on all sides, are way too smart to get caught in that trap. Again, whether Judge Girolami issued a gag order or not was not going to make Scott Peterson any more guilty or any more innocent than he is already. And since gag orders aren't worth much anyway, the fact that the judge refused to enter one Friday won't have much more impact on the case than if he had issued one.
Finally, there was the question Friday of whether defense attorneys and journalists could listen to tapes of wiretapped telephone conversations between Scott Peterson and various callers, including many journalists looking early on in the investigation for the big "get." Now, you can see fairly clearly why journalists might be interested in this particular issue, especially those reporters who may have said embarrassing things to Peterson in an effort to convince him, in turn, to say something on the record to them. But this is not an issue that is likely to impact the case, regardless of how strenuously the defense objects to the act of wiretapping itself. No judge in this country would dismiss the prosecutors in a case like this for court-approved wiretaps, even if a few of those wiretaps happened to briefly catch lawyer-client conversations.
Add it all up and you get one monumentally unimportant day in the history of a story that has seen its share of important days and will do so again. Remember: just because the lawyers are in court and the talking-head analysts are outside of court doesn't mean anything of significance is happening. It just unfortunately seems that way sometimes.
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