Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBSNews.com and CBS News.
So now, finally, the day-to-day agony that was the Scott Peterson trial is over. Good riddance to it. The legal significance of the case (none) was always completely out of proportion with the media attention given to it (excessive). It's no wonder judges are taking out their frustrations upon journalists, jurors don't want to serve as the conscience of their communities and the public has a distorted view of what's really important in the world of the law.
The story of the Peterson story — by that I mean the narrative that began with his wife's disappearance and ended today — really is more of a story about how the media and the law sometimes intersect in ways which do neither justice. While the cameras and notebooks were trained on Scott and Laci and Amber and the grieving parents and the angry in-laws and the combative friends those cameras and notebooks were not trained on legal events and issues of far greater significance.
There is a crisis within the federal court system brought about by a lack of judicial appointments — a problem that affects tens of thousands of people every day. The very concept and structure of sentencing in criminal cases is now in doubt after a Supreme Court ruling last June. This is a concern so troubling that the Justices themselves scheduled it back onto their calendar at the first of the current term. As chronicled earlier this week, there is a big fight over the death penalty between the Supreme Court and the courts of Texas. There are cases involving the USA Patriot Act that touch upon some of the freedoms we take for granted and there are the cases where journalists are being criminally sanctioned despite the First Amendment's free press protections.
How many times have you seen any of these issues debated at night on cable television? How many breathless websites have you seen devoted to these topics? Despite the obvious fact that these cases and these issues will affect your life much more directly than the sad tale of Scott and Laci, you probably haven't heard boo about these stories unless you've gone out of your way to do so. This is a shame upon too many mainstream journalists, who have shown again that they are perfectly willing to cater to the public's basest instincts in the false name of "newsworthiness." And it's also a shame for the legal system, which Lord knows could use a big dose of attention drawn to the huge problems listed above.
Scott Peterson? He is merely a boil on the butt of the law. His case adds nothing new to what we already know about crime and punishment in America. It gives us no scintillating new legal theories and certainly does not represent a high-water mark in the annals of legal representation. The prosecution case against him was miserable and inexcusably long. His defense was lame, right down to the dubious mea culpa offered during the penalty phase by star attorney Mark Geragos who didn't even have the courtesy and respect to show up in court at his client's side at last month's announcement of the initial verdict. Even the trial judge failed to adequately protect or respect jurors by allowing a four-week trial to turn into an eight-month-long ordeal. If the trial were a Broadway play it would have been panned and closed early. If it were a movie, it would be Ishtar or Gigli.
Unfortunately, the truth is that spouses murder each other all the time in this and every other country in the world. Husbands murder wives. Wives murder husbands. It is a tragedy every time it happens and yet every time it happens we don't as a society become fixated with who did what to whom and why. So how and why did the Scott and Laci story become such an obsession? Why them and not some other sad tale of a marriage gone bad? Did people care about the case because the media covered it or did the media cover it because people cared? The answer is both and neither.
Let's face it. Among all the other murder cases that rose up a few years ago and could have drawn our attention, we fixated upon the Peterson case because the principals both were white and good looking; because Laci, pregnant, disappeared right before Christmas, and, most importantly, because family members on both sides (before they split over Scott's arrest) used the media to initially get out the story of Laci's disappearance. When Laci was just missing, when there still was hope that she might be found, the Peterson and Rocha families shrewdly took to the airwaves seeking help. They knew, as more and more savvy news consumers know, that journalists, especially television journalists, especially cable television journalists, cannot resist a dramatic tale.
So they used the media to help with the search. And in so doing, they struck a chord with viewers and listeners around the country who, once Laci's body was found, were already so invested with the story that they have never since turned away. It didn't hurt, from the sleaze point of view, that the story also included a hot mistress, and plenty of stormy and steamy and unseemly audiotape. The Peterson case is the first post 9-11 story that reminds us of how unfocused we were about what really mattered before the attacks on America.
At the beginning of this story, the families used the media (can you blame them?) and ever since the media have used them (can you blame them)? And in the middle of this dance have been the American people, at least those millions who actually care about this case. If this scenario sounds familiar, it is. Remember Chandra Levy? How about Elizabeth Smart? Samantha Runnion? Dru Sjodin? In each case, the family of the victim was savvy enough to know that the way to expedite the search for a loved one is to get onto local television-- whether or not local reporters initiate the contact that first makes it happen. And local television is savvy enough to woo the networks and cable television with these sorts of local stories, which, like wildfire, can spread with repeated exposure on cable.
So instead of giving us an important lesson about the law, or even marital relationships, perhaps the only lesson of the long, sordid Peterson case is that there is now a confirmed channel, a pathway, an itinerary, a charted course for turning an ordinary, average murder into a national news sensation. If you or your family suffers a tragedy, and you want to try to use the media to help you, understand that you will end up being used yourself. You try to ride the tiger and you end up inside. Even if that lesson says a lot about who we are as a society, it just doesn't justify all the attention. Not even close.
Peterson himself now begins his long journey through the appellate system in California (and then on to the federal courts, which have to vet every capital conviction). This isn't a quick process. Unless his conviction and sentence are overturned on appeal — an unlikely scenario even though the evidence against him is weak and the trial was often marred by bizarre events — he probably will be kicking around the state's penal system for decades, a generation perhaps, before he is executed. And that assumes no major changes in the dynamics of the death penalty between now and then.
Did Scott really murder Laci despite the lack of evidence that says he did? Or is he really just one of the unluckiest guys in the history of the world, a cheating, lying, despicable creep of a husband who just happened to be fishing in the same bay where his murdered wife's body eventually turned up. Who knows? And, unless you are part of the Peterson or Rocha families, for whom this tragedy never will end, who cares?