Jury selection in Scott Peterson's murder case is expected to begin in less than two weeks, but in some ways his trial will make its world premiere on Friday — on cable television.
There will be no television cameras allowed in the courtroom for the trial of Peterson, who is accused of killing his pregnant wife and their unborn son. But the USA Network will give viewers the next-best thing on Friday night, when it airs The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story.
The made-for-TV movie is based on Laci Peterson's disappearance on Christmas Eve 2002 and the events that led to Scott Peterson's arrest. Starring Lois & Clark Superman Dean Cain as Peterson, The Perfect Husband was driven by the national headlines the case has generated since images of a glowing, pregnant Laci first surfaced. Massive pretrial publicity made a judge move the trial out of Laci's hometown in Modesto, Calif., to the San Francisco area, 90 miles away.
Despite the new venue, the broadcast of a movie about his case may not help the perception — particularly held by his defense attorneys — that Scott Peterson cannot get a fair trial. Who knows how many prospective jurors will watch the premiere of The Perfect Husband and its encore presentations over the Valentine's Day weekend?
This may be an issue Peterson's attorneys will have to confront when they question prospective jurors.
"A lot of it would depend on how they [producers] made the movie," said Robert Talbot, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. "If they portray the story in such a way that it could make Scott Peterson look sinister in some way, or that it touches on strong emotions in a community, it's possible it could sway people one way or the other, affect their point of views.
"To make it interesting, they would have to take a sympathetic view of one side, even if they say they are not," Talbot said. "I can't imagine them playing it straight-straight. This is definitely something Peterson's attorneys will have to voir dire jurors about. I can't see how they would not."
‘A Movie About Our Culture’
Scott Peterson's attorney, Mark Geragos, did not return phone calls from ABCNEWS.com. Citing the gag order on the case, he previously has declined to comment on The Perfect Husband.
According to the USA Network, the movie focuses only on the time period between Laci's disapperance and Peterson's arrest in April 2003. It does not judge his guilt or innocence or make any new startling revelations. Every event and detail in the movie has been reported extensively in the media — including Scott Peterson's admitted affair with Amber Frey.
"The movie only focuses on the time Laci disappeared to the time Scott was arrested," said a USA spokesman, who declined to be identified. "We didn't go into any of the court proceedings that have followed. Everything that's in the movie is already out there."
The movie is told from the point of view of two fictional characters, Tommy and Kate Vignatti, who are composites of Laci's friends. Jeff Wachtel, USA's executive vice president for original scripted programming, outlined the movie's focus when the network announced its production plans in October.
"The Perfect Husband is not just a movie about a specific crime, it's also a movie about our culture — how someone can gain and then betray the trust of a woman, a family, a community," he said.
The families of both Laci and Scott Peterson are unhappy about the movie. Laci's parents have complained that the movie distorts reality, only focuses on Peterson and could influence potential jurors. The Modesto Bee quoted Scott Peterson's father, Lee Peterson, as calling The Perfect Husband an attempt to make "pile of money off a news story."
Real Life Feeding Reel Life
Reel-life TV movies about real-life, ongoing criminal cases have become the norm in recent years.
In 1995, The O.J. Simpson Story premiered on Fox as Simpson's "trial of the century" opened. He was acquitted of murder charges in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.
Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder detailed how teenage sweethearts David Graham and Diane Zamora killed a high school girl Graham had briefly dated. It aired on NBC in 1997, months before their separate trials. Both were convicted of capital murder.
Last October, the USA Network aired D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear just before the respective trials of defendants John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo began. Both were found guilty of capital murder.
The interest generated by news coverage of feeds the public's interest in the stories and the desire to have TV movies made about them, experts say.
"The reason for this is the 24-hour news cycle creates these stories that become irresistible to TV [executives]," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It used to be that when you had just three major networks, you got 15 minutes of news and that was all that you would get and that's all that you could tell. Now, when you get a huge story, MSNBC, FOX and CNN become like ad-hoc promotional departments for the TV movie that will be made."
Since the public can look forward to continuous, blanket coverage of the Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart cases from all major news organizations and cable news stations, what is the appeal of made-for-TV movies? Isn't the real thing better than the reel thing?
"It's two different perspectives," said Thompson. "It's like those who really like seeing that famous hockey game [the U.S. Olympic hockey's team's stunning victory over the Soviet team in 1980] would tend to really want to see the new movie Miracle.
"Also, with news coverage, journalists are held to a certain standard; there are certain things they just can't do," Thompson said. "But with TV [movies], they can make stuff up, take you behind that closed door, use facts in the case for re-enactments."
Overcoming American Mythology
It may not matter if several potential jurors watch The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story. Coverage and analysis of the case has been so massive that it would be practically impossible to find anyone who hasn't heard about it — and perhaps formed an opinion about Scott Peterson's guilt or innocence. And Peterson's lawyers cannot block its premiere.
"It's the First Amendment," Talbot said. "You can put gag orders on all the people involved in the case and everyone in your jurisdiction. But not the studios."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys would not expect jurors who have not heard of the Peterson case at all. They just want people who can put aside what they already have heard and seen about the case and evaluate the evidence placed before them.
But in today's age of information overload, that can be an underestimated challenge. Jurors may not be entirely aware of how their exposure to various news media can deeply shape how they analyze evidence and render a verdict.
"By the time these cases reach trial, they are so very deeply established in the American mythology — seen in sketches by comics — that it really takes very sophisticated jurors to erase what they have heard and do what the judge asks them to do and focus on what's in front of them," Thompson said.
"It may be a good idea to call for some jury education, maybe in high schools as students prepare to become productive voting members of society," he said. "Being a juror requires much more sophistication than it did 30 years ago."