The judge in the Scott Peterson case has accepted the jury's recommendation and on him. Let's assume Peterson exhausts all of his legal appeals at some point years and years from now and is actually executed for murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn child. Let's also assume that Peterson, upon his death, comes face to face with his ultimate judge, whomever and wherever that may be.
The Judge: Mr. Peterson, either you are a cruel and heinous killer or one of the unluckiest men ever to have lived. Either you coldly murdered your beautiful, pregnant wife on Christmas Eve and dumped her body in a bay or someone else did, for reasons still unknown, and framed you beautifully for it. What do you have to say for yourself?
Peterson: I don't know what to say. I'm unlucky more than cruel. The judge wouldn't let us introduce at trial evidence that might have persuaded the jury that I could never have gotten Laci into that small boat, much less dumped her body without capsizing it. Those jurors experimented with the boat when they shouldn't have. A prisoner whose testimony might have helped didn't testify at trial. And then there was Nancy Grace and her crowd, all presuming my guilt long before my trial. I never had a chance.
The Judge: C'mon, Mr. Peterson. Don't you know that I see all? Sometimes guilty people, too, never have a chance. If someone else did this, why didn't your attorney put on better evidence of that at trial? And if there was more evidence to be discovered pointing to a random crime, why didn't the police pursue it? Not all police investigations go after the wrong suspect. Besides, your fishing story, the timing of your trip, the place you went, the fish you were after, your failure to tell your in-law about the boat… don't you think all that was very suspicious?
Peterson: Yes, I guess it was. But an Hispanic woman's body was dumped in the bay and discovered around the time that Laci's body was discovered. Why didn't the media ever focus upon that case? Why didn't the police investigate more into whether there was a pattern there that had nothing to do with me. It's just so amazing to me with all the unanswered questions about my case- and so much missing from the case against me- that so many people were so certain I had done it before, during and after my trial.
The Judge: Oh, please. Don't play the victim here. Whether or not you murdered your wife you obviously aren't innocent. I mean, at your wife's memorial service, you called your mistress and pretended that you were in Paris at the Eiffel Tower celebrating New Year's Eve. What kind of decent, honorable man does that, especially to a woman, your wife, who by all accounts was a joy, a treasure, one of the sweetest, most optimistic people ever to have graced her circle of friends and family?
Peterson: A scared man, your honor. And I never said I was honorable or that Laci wasn't great. I just said I wasn't her killer. I loved having Amber in my life and when Laci was killed I realized that the questions would begin and that that it would be harder to keep Amber around. I wanted her to feel sympathy for me; wanted her not to bail on me because of what had happened. Besides, if I truly killed Laci would I be stupid enough to say the things I said to Amber after I suspected she was taping our telephone conversations?
The Judge: I don't know, Mr. Peterson. You were stupid enough to cheat on your pregnant wife, to lie to Amber, to say things on the telephone to her that would later incriminate you, to do many insensitive things even before Laci's body turned up that her family held against you; to refer to her in the past tense before she was found; to dye your hair and change your appearance; to carry a lot of cash and get suspiciously close to Mexico while knowing you were under surveillance. Besides, stupid or not, what kind of innocent man acts that way?
Peterson: A man under pressure and stress, Judge. I know I screwed up with the way I handled Amber. I panicked. I was too clever by half. I wasn't thinking clearly. I did and said stupid things to Laci's family because I didn't know what else to say or do. The media were scrutinizing my every move. I couldn't go out and I couldn't stay in and I knew the police were watching me. I just wanted to get away from it all for a little bit; wanted to be a different person for a while until things settled down.
The Judge: You had your chance at the sentencing in March 2005, way back then, to set the record straight. You had a chance to tell more of your story. Don't tell me your lawyers advised you not to. Don't you know — didn't you know then — that lawyers rarely give advice on Earth that helps when you get here?
Peterson: I truly thought that the appeals courts would vindicate me. I believed that there were enough bad rulings by the trial judge and enough shenanigans with jurors that I would get a new trial; a trial without the lynch-mob mentality that pervaded the first trial. I figured the smartest thing to do was to keep my mouth shut pending appeal. Even some legal analysts who covered the trial, who followed it day to day, thought at the time that I had as good a chance as anyone of getting a new trial.
The Judge: But surely you knew, or should have known, that cases like yours are rarely reversed on appeal; that the Constitution doesn't require a perfect trial but merely a reasonably fair one. Besides, while you were keeping your mouth shut, your half-sister and Amber both wrote books that told people why they thought you were Laci's killer. Don't you think that people look back at those two books written about you just after your trial and see them as confirmation of the jury's verdict? How many half-sisters turn on their brothers that way? And how many mistresses are so willing to ruin their own lives and reputations by offering so many details about their illicit relationship?
Peterson: Amber turned on me because I let her down, because I lied to her, because she thinks I killed Laci and because she probably figures I might have done the same to her. And she's mad at herself for getting into this mess. As for my half-sister, I really can't say. I just feel so bad for my folks, not just for seeing what happened to me but for seeing what happened to her. Our whole family was torn apart.
The Judge: Speaking of families being torn apart, what about Laci's family? Don't you feel bad for them? They trusted you, even after she disappeared, and then they had to come to grips with the fact that a jury convicted you. Don't you wish you ever expressed remorse to them for what they had to go through back then at the turn of the century?
Peterson: I did feel bad for them, for a while, until they became so vocal in pointing a finger at me. At that point, when they no longer gave me the benefit of the doubt, I realized that nothing I would ever do or say would ever regain their trust. And that I would never for the rest of my life have enemies as dedicated as them. It's hard to feel bad for folks who want to see you dead.
The Judge: All right, before I pass eternal judgment upon you, I shall give you a few final words. What say you?
Peterson: I don't know what else to say, Judge. Perhaps you can you give me some help. What did O.J. say when he got here?
By Andrew Cohen