TV docuseries seems to suggest Scott Peterson didn’t kill pregnant wife Laci
Scott Peterson was railroaded.
That’s the premise of at least the first three episodes of what is certain to be a controversial six-part docuseries called “The Murder of Laci Peterson,” premiering Tuesday on A&E.
Laci Peterson was 27 years old and eight-and-a-half-months pregnant when she went missing in December 2002. Her husband, Scott, had left their Modesto, Calif., home that day for Berkeley, where he took a small aluminum motor boat out for some fishing in San Francisco Bay.
Scott got home that night and called his mother-in-law, Sharon Rocha, to ask if Laci was there. She wasn’t.
A massive search, bolstered by members of the tight-knit Modesto community, was organized while police investigated. Eventually, the bodies of Laci and her unborn son, who was to be named Conner, washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay. The case had already become that perverse modern-day form of “entertainment” we call a media circus, and the circus became even more raucous when Peterson went on trial for murder in 2004. He was found guilty and sentenced to death the following year and is now on death row in San Quentin State Prison.
The new docuseries has a definite point of view: The police had their sights set narrowly on Scott Peterson from the beginning and failed to talk to witnesses whose sightings of Laci walking the family dog on the afternoon of her disappearance would have at least suggested a greater possibility of reasonable doubt in Peterson’s trial.
When Laci was seen walking the dog, according to these witnesses, Scott was fishing in San Francisco Bay. And that would have at least suggested that the prosecution’s case, that Scott was transporting Laci’s body in the small boat in order to dump it into the bay, merited further investigation.
A pair of pliers became a key piece of evidence in the trial because they contained a single strand of Laci’s hair. However, the pliers were rusted closed, despite being found only days after Laci’s disappearance.
Peterson, by anyone’s account, didn’t help his case. He did not seem to be reacting the way a young father-to-be would react about his missing wife. Worse, there was Amber Frey, a young woman who began dating Scott a few months before Laci’s disappearance
“Amber was a complete game-changer,” says Ted Rowlands, who covered Laci’s disappearance and Scott Peterson’s trial for KTVU in the Bay Area.
“The Murder of Laci Peterson” may include information from credible sources that at least makes viewers wonder if Peterson is innocent, but the series does not cover only one “side” of the case.
We hear from prosecutors and detectives who stand by Peterson’s conviction, for example, and we hear from Laci’s family members and media personnel.
They point to Scott telling Frey that he’d “lost” his wife a couple of months before Laci disappeared as a suggestion that he was already thinking of killing his wife. A local cop recalls Scott enjoying a ribs dinner with so much gusto, you’d never believe his wife was missing. Others recall Scott decamping to San Diego, dying his hair and trying to join his father at a golf course until he was nabbed by cops who’d been following as he drove around trying to evade what he thought was the media.
Rowlands, arguing Peterson is innocent, calls him “just a poor schmuck who had a girlfriend.”
But, he continues, the police focused on Scott Peterson “very early on, and it may have been to the detriment of missed opportunities,” including several people discovered by private eye Gary Ermoian who saw Laci walking the golden retriever the day she disappeared.
Several contributors to the film believe the over-saturated media coverage was a factor in the investigation’s focus and on the outcome of the trial.
Among them is author and New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta, who is especially critical of Nancy Grace. Although Grace remains convinced of Peterson’s guilt, Auletta is more concerned with her participation in the media coverage of the killing.
Grace, he says, “purports to be a journalist, but she acts like a prosecutor” on television. Of course, she was a prosecutor before she became a media star.
To use a popular word, there was a good bit of collusion between the cops and at least one TV reporter, Gloria Gomez, who covered the story for KOVR TV in Sacramento. By the time the national media descended on Modesto, she had worked sources she’d developed for a long time before Laci’s disappearance. She had all these “nuggets,” she says rather gleefully, which she would “drop” when her sources gave her the go-ahead to do so.
That supports the point of view of defense attorney and legal analyst Chris Pixley, who maintains that the cops and prosecutors released bits of information along the way to support their case against Scott Peterson.
“Fake news has been around for a long time,” he says, “especially in criminal cases, especially when it comes to trying your case in the media.”
Heavy media coverage often begets more of those “nuggets” Gomez is so proud of obtaining,” Auletta says.
“Everything is speeded up,” he says. “And as it’s speeded up, the power of the leaker becomes even greater.”
Peterson himself is a participant in the film, speaking by phone from San Quentin. He says he’s innocent.
Is he? Was he railroaded, either on purpose or because of inadequate police work? Or did he commit the heinous crime for which he was convicted?
Viewers will come to their own conclusions, and many, no doubt, already have, a long time ago.