Why We Were Infatuated With the Peterson Case

Nov. 22, 2004 — -- There was no doubt that the crowd outside the courthouse in Redwood City, Calif., approved of the verdict in Scott Peterson's murder trial.

When jurors convicted Peterson of first-degree murder in the slaying of his pregnant wife, Laci, and second-degree murder in the death of the unborn son they had named Conner, people outside the courthouse erupted in cheers. Some cried with joy and hugged bystanders. Others mugged for the cameras with newspapers that already had the headline "Guilty!" atop a photo of Peterson. Some pumped their fists in the air.

A verdict had not inspired this kind of public emotion since O.J. Simpson's acquittal in 1995 for the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. So why were people who did not even know Laci or Scott Peterson obsessed with the case and celebrating as if they had won a lottery?

"People are interested in stories of gravity, news that involves the interests of the community as a whole," said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "They're interested in issues like healthcare and the economy."

"But Scott Peterson was not the kind of story that changes national public policy," Thompson continued. "Usually, for a story to attract the public's attention, it must have one of four dramatic elements: If a celebrity is involved; if a child is murdered; if there's some kind of sex scandal or if there's a betrayal of family. The Peterson case has three out of those four elements."

Real-Life Tragedy, Reel-Life Intrigue

The Peterson case first generated headlines during the 2002 Christmas season, which tends to be a slow news period.

Maybe the public couldn't stop staring at the photos of a vibrant, smiling Laci. Maybe it was the fact that she was pregnant when she disappeared on Christmas Eve, a time for families and togetherness. Perhaps some people saw the Peterson case as the ultimate combination of tragedies -- the loss of young lives, hopes and dreams, and the betrayal of a husband who had a mistress whom he called even as volunteers searched for his wife.

The Peterson story had all the intrigue of a Hollywood drama, and earlier this year, the USA network premiered a made-for-TV movie about the case.

Arguably, it might not have become a national story in the pre-CNN era. The media in Modesto -- the Petersons' hometown -- would have followed the developments, and the verdict might have led to a mention on the national evening news broadcasts.

However, in today's age of 24-hour cable news stations and Court TV, fierce competition in the news media and the incessant need to meet the demand for stories, the Peterson case is a national phenomenon. In some ways, the media made the Peterson case a national story and the public couldn't turn away.

"I think after awhile they feel like they're a part of the story. After awhile, people go though a self-fulfilling sort of ritual," Thompson said. "When they hear about a story that interests them, they clamor for more info on the story. Pretty soon, the media feel like it [sic] has to report on every little development in the story and they can't stop it. Now that we have outlets like Court TV and the 24-hour cable news stations, there will always be these kind of sensational trials. They thrive on this stuff."

Feeding a Public Fixation

The pain of Peterson's trial will remain with the couple's relatives long after a jury recommends the death penalty or life in prison. But there will always be another infamous criminal case to fixate the nation and courtroom observers. In fact, opening statements are scheduled to begin in early December in another celebrity case, the murder trial of Robert Blake.

"It [Robert Blake's trial] comes at a perfect time," said California defense attorney Steve Cron. "It's right after Peterson and right before the [Michael] Jackson trial begins in January. It gives you guys something to write about."

The former "Baretta" star is accused of killing his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, to get out of what some called a loveless marriage. He married Bakley -- who family members said had always wanted to be the wife of a movie star -- after DNA tests showed he was the father of her youngest daughter, Rosie.

Bakley was killed on May 4, 2001, long before anyone had heard of Scott and Laci Peterson and more than two years before Kobe Bryant was arrested for an alleged sexual assault and Michael Jackson's most recent child molestation scandal began. The Sept. 11 attacks and war on terror knocked Blake's story and other scandals off the front pages and it has been overshadowed by Peterson and bigger celebrity-name scandals since.

"Before the Sept. 11 attacks, everyone seemed focused on Robert Blake, the Gary Condit scandal and I was representing Paula Poundstone," said Cron, referring to the comedian who was involved in a child abuse case stemming from a DUI incident. A plea agreement was reached in the case on Sept. 12, 2001.

"And then Sept. 11th happened and we worked out an agreement the day after Sept. 11. No one was paying attention to us, understandably so."

In the shadow of Hollywood, some may have thought there was no better resolution to the Peterson trial than the guilty verdicts. But there was no victory for Scott Peterson's relatives or the Rochas, the family of Laci Peterson, because nothing will bring back Laci and the baby they never knew.

The two-year anniversary of Laci's disappearance is quickly approaching, and no matter what the jury recommends, it's hard to imagine either family giving a "thumbs up" to any ending in their real-life drama.

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