Q+A: The Scott Peterson Case

ByABC News
December 14, 2004, 8:40 AM

Dec. 14, 2004 — -- Here a sampling of your questions in response to the recommendation of the death penalty for Scott Peterson on a double-murder conviction. Providing answers are ABC News reporter Mike Gudgell, who has been covering the Peterson case for the past two years and ABC News law and justice reporter Greg Macek.

Susan in New Hampshire asks: For what reason might a judge overturn a jury's death penalty verdict?

Macek: Basically the judge may modify the verdict to life without the possibility of parole if he finds the jury's death verdict is contrary to law or evidence. He will review the jury's finding that the aggravating circumstances were so substantial in comparison to the mitigating circumstances that the death penalty was justified in this case. Judges are normally very reluctant to overturn a jury verdict barring some serious error, and it would be very surprising if the jury's verdict was overturned here.

Marsha in Dallas asks: How is it possible to find someone guilty and to assess the death penalty, when there was apparently zero physical evidence presented by prosecutors at trial which would connect Scott Peterson directly to the death of his wife?

Gudgell: Actually what is often referred to as "circumstantial evidence" can be very powerful. Many domestic violence cases have little "hard evidence" since fiber, hair, fingerprints and DNA from both the victim and the suspect would be expected at the scene of the crime. Many, if not most, cases are similar to what the prosecutors presented in the Peterson trial.

Unfortunately, popular television shows on forensics leave many people with an unrealistic expectation of court cases. I'd also point out that there was one piece of evidence connecting Scott to the crime. There were two hairs, which tests show are most likely Laci's, found in a pair of pliers inside the boat. Of course, there may be other explanations for how the hairs got inside the pliers. Still, it's a piece of a puzzle. Sometimes the sum is greater than the parts.

Macek: The case against Peterson was based on circumstantial evidence which is given the same weight as direct evidence under the law. The jury felt when they put all the evidence together, the prosecution proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt even though they didn't know exactly how or when Laci and Conner were killed. When considering the death penalty, the jury was allowed to consider "lingering doubt" as a mitigating circumstance. Lingering doubt is doubt somewhere between reasonable doubt and an absolute certainty.

Many analysts felt that because there was no murder weapon, or other direct evidence against Peterson, the jury might have some lingering doubt that he may be not guilty. Apparently, the nature and circumstances of the crime outweighed any lingering doubt or other mitigating circumstance in the jurors' minds, and they thought the death penalty was appropriate.

G in Ontario asks: Why were A & E and other stations allowed to run soap opera-like shows about this case while it was being tried? I think this was blatantly unfair; Peterson was depicted as guilty while he was on trial.

Gudgell: This country has a free press. There are no laws restricting A & E or any other media. (Pornography being one exception). I can't disagree that some of the coverage in some of the media was inaccurate and full of speculation. There's a difficult balancing act between the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press and the Sixth Amendment giving the accused the right to a fair trial. The courts and any responsible media outlet struggle with this on a daily basis.

In the Peterson case, the judge imposed a protective or "gag" order that prohibited witnesses, law enforcement and lawyers from discussing the case. Unfortunately, although gag orders are intended to limit pretrial publicity, they often contribute to inaccurate coverage because no one with authority and knowledge can comment. I think the issue you raise is a good one. There are shows on cable television that do not use the same standards of journalism as others. It's hard for the public to know whether what they are hearing is speculation or fact. That's a problem for those of us who believe in journalism as a profession and not a business.