The Laci Case Gets Weird

Scott Peterson and Laci Peterson
Just when it seemed that the Scott Peterson capital murder case finally had settled into a rhythm of sense and stability it exploded into chaos and absurdity. What had been an increasingly orderly procession toward pretrial proceedings devolved instead over the weekend and Monday into a uniquely Californian freak show.

It is as if the Gods of High-Profile Trials have spoken thus: "Laci Peterson's tragic story not interesting enough anymore for you? Fine. We'll throw into the already horrific storyline the specter of Charles Manson and Paula Jones. And we'll add another 'celebrity lawyer' to the mix because, goodness knows, this story doesn't already have enough of them, either involved in the case itself or yakking about it endlessly and often without shame on the cable news shows.

"And, finally, while we are at it," the Gods have added, "we'll add in that most mesmerizing component of all — the heretofore inconceivable concept that there are and ought to be real doubts about whether Scott Peterson actually killed his wife." While it took God six days to make the world, it has taken these lesser deities roughly half that time to remake the Peterson case into the undisputed champion of tabloid trials; this year's granddaddy of them all. Sorry, Robert Blake, but Scott Peterson and his ex-girlfriend are going to get your close-up.

One week ago, by contrast, there was reason to believe that order had been restored to a case that began with a flurry of post-arrest bedlam. Scott Peterson hired a seasoned defense attorney, Mark Geragos, who promptly used his well-practiced media skills to communicate a version of events about his client that countered the official line offered by the police and prosecutors. Now potential jurors weren't just hearing from, say, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who unconscionably said on the day of Peterson's arrest that the case against him was a "slam dunk." Now, the jury pool also was hearing (from someone they are used to hearing from on television) that Scott didn't kill Laci after all.

Not only that, but Geragos got Peterson out of his red jail uniform and back into civilian clothes for the many public pre-trial hearings that are to come; a simple but important step toward reasserting Scott Peterson's presumption of innocence. And most importantly, perhaps, Geragos (with the help of reasonable prosecutors) got certain key evidentiary warrants sealed at a time when their public disclosure might have in turn sealed a perception of Peterson's guilt in the minds of many potential jurors. None of Geragos' moves mean that Peterson is innocent or that he will be acquitted of the serious charges against him. But all of them mean that there will be a smart and vigorous defense in a case that desperately needs one.

But that was before this past weekend when the case seemed to slip back from the sublimely routine to the ridiculous. First, we were treated to images of the police searching again in San Francisco Bay, near where parts of Laci's body first were discovered. Were divers looking for evidence that prosecutors figure will simply cap off their case against Peterson? Or is the persistent searching in those choppy waters a sign that prosecutors desperately need to find more of the victims' bodies in order to help establish a cause of her death and thus a stronger circumstantial case against Scott? Those questions cannot yet be answered but the fact that we are asking them suggests that the case against Scott Peterson may not be as omnipotent as first advertised.

Then there was the unofficial emergence in the case of a "cult" angle, with all of its Mansonian implications. Someone disclosed late last week to various news organizations that the defense was proceeding with a "working theory" that Laci Peterson and her unborn child were kidnapped and murdered by members of a Satanic cult. The police, apparently, investigated such a scenario early on in the investigation and, obviously, never went very far with it. And the defense, so far, has no comment on these cult-related reports.

But now a parallel has been drawn between Laci Peterson and Sharon Tate, another beautiful young woman who also was slaughtered in California along with her unborn child. And now people following the case are talking about a brown van seen near where Laci Peterson was last seen. If this sinister, spooky angle plays out at trial, the phrase "Helter Skelter" won't just represent the title of the famous Bugliosi book about the Charles Manson case, it will represent the degree of tumult inside the Peterson courtroom.

Finally, there is Amber Frey, the "other woman" in Scott Peterson's life, who re-emerged Monday looking (and acting) eerily like Paula Jones, the woman whose sexual harassment lawsuit almost brought down Bill Clinton's presidency. Her hair dyed blonde, Frey has hired the ubiquitous attorney Gloria Allred to represent her. Allred promptly called a press conference (carried live by one cable news channel) and then went on many of the morning news shows Tuesday (including the CBS News Early Show) to declare that her client wants her privacy back. "I vant to be alone," Frey is telling us, even as Team Amber gobbled up airtime.

Never mind that Frey is not a suspect in the case, or that Allred cannot validly "coach" her as a motive witness for the prosecution, Frey needs representation, we are told, because she, too, is a "victim" of Scott Peterson. I'll believe that when I read the details of her post-trial book deal. In the meantime, Allred's ominous sideshow involvement in the Peterson case means that we will be seeing her outside of the courtroom defending her client's virtue any time the defense deigns to impugn it. Prosecutors will say Frey proves Scott wanted to kill his wife. The defense will say Frey proves that Scott was an adulterer, not a murderer. Good grief. What's next? Patricia Hearst? Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber? No, probably not. But I hear O.J. Simpson is looking for work as a trial analyst.

By Andrew Cohen