Five minutes before the Scott Peterson verdict, I told a CBS colleague in my most curmudgeonly tone that that I couldn't care less about it and would stick with a C-Span program on the history of the Electoral College. But curiosity got the best of me and I clicked over to hear the news. Suddenly, after dissing the hyped cable coverage of this story for six months, I couldn't get enough of it.
Why the death sentence from a jury who had some doubts about the guilty verdict itself? Scott Peterson is hardly the Boy Scout of the month, but he is no Timothy McVeigh. Yet the reporting and commentary afterward had only praise for the jurors and the judicial system. The only dissent came from some of the "expert analysts" were busy wiping egg off their not-so-expert faces for predicting that a northern California jury would be highly unlikely to call for the death sentence for a first offender convicted on circumstantial evidence.
The jurors clearly took their responsibility seriously but the explanations given were highly emotional and less than reasoned. "He's an a**hole," juror #4 told CBS News Correspondent Hattie Kauffman. So fry him?
Not showing any emotion in court was another much-heralded sin, along with the lying and the extramarital affair. A former president of the United States wasn't even put out of office for lying under oath and conducting an affair inside the White House. But this guy is sentenced to die because of them? Okay, Bill didn't kill Hillary and Chelsea but the jurors seem to have used their disgust over Peterson's behavior after Laci's death as a justification to execute him.
You don't have to have sympathy for Scott Peterson to question whether the punishment fits the evidence and to wonder why so few have come forward to object to the sentence. The liberal elites washed their dainty hands of the tawdry trial and now even the cables seem to feel that this is a nice clean end to a story that has about run out of string.
A CBS News/New York Times poll taken last July indicated that half of Americans support the death penalty for murder, a third favor life in prison without parole; the rest aren't sure or say it depends. When asked whether they favor or oppose the death penalty in general, about two-thirds support it and a quarter oppose it.
That 25 percent is rather quiet this week. We hear no outrage from the Catholic bishops, MoveOn.org or the Democrats in Congress or the state houses. Democrats in search of moral values have decided to take a pass on this one. Groups who oppose the death penalty have started framing their arguments in evidentiary or economic terms rather than moral ones. The Death Penalty Information Center's web site is crammed full of statistics about how expensive the death penalty and the appeals process is for state governments.
The wrongful death argument has been powerful. According to the Center, the number of people sentenced to death has declined by 50 percent since 1999. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported 144 death sentences in 2003, the lowest number in thirty years and executions fell by 10 percent, down from 65 in 2003 to 59 in 2004, a 40 percent drop since 1999. Interestingly, only two states outside the south conducted executions and southern states accounted for 85 percent of those put to death.
Many of those who feel uneasy about the sentence seem to take comfort from the fact that Peterson is number 642 on death row in California and that the judge has the authority to reverse the decision next February.
But will the hype that surrounded the trial and the lack of dissent over the sentence create a climate for the judge to change it? Or could the media frenzy fast-track this execution? The cables do seem poised to wrap this one up.
The moral questions surrounding the death penalty have been missing from the American political debate for many years. Thomas Aquinas' argument "if a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended," doesn't seem to fit this case.
But Aquinas was not available to the Larry King bookers and Mario Cuomo, who used to make the circuit on this one, has been off the radar screen for a while. Will anyone take their place?
By Dotty Lynch