Tough Task For Peterson Jury

Scott Peterson and the scales of justice over a faded photo of Laci Peterson AP / CBS

When the jurors in the Scott Peterson murder trial finally complete their required duty, perhaps they ought to stay in the courthouse long enough to sue the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys for emotional distress, false imprisonment and "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eight Amendment.

It is a travesty upon justice that these poor men and women have been forced to endure a murder trial that already is 19 weeks long before defense attorneys call their first witness. There is simply no excuse or justification for it.

Judge Alfred A. Delucchi, who should know better after decades on the bench, ought to be ashamed of himself for not better controlling his courtroom and managing the trial. Prosecutors ought to be reprimanded for failing to treat jurors with the respect that they deserve. As for defense attorney Mark Geragos, well, he would be smart to present the shortest possible defense on behalf of his client. The jury might be so grateful for his brevity that they'd acquit his client even if they think he may have murdered his wife. Maybe that's why the early, unofficial word is that the defense case will take only about a week to complete.

Peterson may or may not be a murderer. But he is no Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslavian despot whose international war crimes trial rumbles on at The Hague with no apparent end in sight. There is nothing in law or fact that justifies the length of time it has taken prosecutors to bring the case against Peterson to this point. There is no conspiracy involved here. There is no complicated plot. There is no lengthy timeline. There is the allegation that a husband murdered his wife because (or, more simply, after) he had taken a lover. This is a two-week trial.

With the complications its seen maybe it stretches to a month-long trial. It is in no sense a six-month-long trial. It should not take 174 witnesses to try to prove any single murder, let alone the kind of murder alleged here. It says to a jury that there is no single damning piece of evidence; that the prosecution's narrative is complex and capable of differing interpretations.

It signals jurors that prosecutors themselves know that they do not have anything that remotely resembles an airtight case. It's the courtroom equivalent of a babbling response during a presidential debate-it tells the audience (in this case the jury) that the speaker either doesn't know the answer or at least isn't sure of it. Put it another way, if you need 174 witnesses to prove a simple murder case perhaps you have too nuanced a case to begin with.

And even if for some inconceivable reason prosecutors really needed each and every one of those 174 witnesses, surely the trial judge had a responsibility to limit the scope of direct- and cross-examination so that the testimonial repetition we've seen during this trial was eliminated or at least reduced. Why so long? No murder weapon ever was found and the condition of Laci Peterson's body, and the body of the couple's unborn child, have made it difficult for prosecutors to point to a clear cause of death.

There are no eyewitnesses to the murder and Peterson did not, despite all of those silly conversations with his mistress Amber Frey, confess to a crime. Add to these questions and ambiguities a seemingly endless supply of "expert witnesses" and combine that with aggressive defense tactics and you have the legal equivalent of a Senatorial filibuster.

This trial just keeps on going, day after day, witness after witness, argument after argument, theory after counter-theory. Sure, each side is entitled to put on its best case. And as a lawyer you never want to leave a relevant witness out. But at some point, it's overkill (please pardon the pun), and I'd say we long ago passed that point. The complicated conspiracy and terrorism trials of Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols took less time to complete than it has taken prosecutors to present their case against Peterson, the former fertilizer salesman accused of killing his wife and the couple's unborn son a few years ago.

The "Helter Skelter" murder trial of Charles Manson was roughly nine months long. Even the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II took only about 10 months to complete. Anyone out there want to argue that the Peterson case merits six months on that sliding scale? Whether Peterson is convicted or not-and right now I'd say it's a 50-50 proposition- the case now will be, and ought to be, compared with the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson, which lasted about 10 months. I don't think that Simpson's jurors acquitted the former football star because they were peeved at prosecutors for wasting their time. But I do think that the length of that trial was a factor in the outcome of the case.

And even though the Simpson jury was sequestered and the Peterson jury is not, it's hard for me to believe that the length of time it is taking this case to conclude won't be a factor as well during deliberations. Just watch. Like the Simpson case before it, the Peterson case is destined to be an example lawyers and law professors and judges will cite when making the case that there are too many excesses within the criminal justice system.

It will become a symbol for lax judicial oversight, prosecutorial laziness and a defense tactic that seeks to take advantage of it all. Cable news made the Laci Peterson case a high-profile cause celebre case for reasons that have very little to do with its significance in the grand scheme of American law. And now the Peterson trial itself is creating a significance of its own for reasons that have very little to do with how a typical state murder trial ought to proceed.

The case doesn't deserve the publicity it receives and the factual and legal issues in dispute at trial don't by a long shot merit its length. It's a shame most of all for those poor Peterson jurors, who have placed their faith in a system that is letting them down day by day. Judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys lament all the time how it's hard to find decent jurors who are willing to make enormous financial and personal sacrifices in order to make the judicial system work. And then when decent men and women show up they get treated like this.

I don't know how Judge Delucchi looks those folks in the eye every morning when he greets them. And I don't know how the jurors themselves can truly be dispassionate about a case that will end up eating up about three-quarters of a year of their lives. If they are angry, they have a right to be. And if they are angry, capital defendant Scott Peterson is only one of a handful of targets who ultimately could feel their wrath.
  • Lauren Johnston

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