Politics & Policy

Finding Laci

Scott Peterson is in jail, but for now the case seems weak.

Could anyone have been unmoved?

At a Monday press conference in Modesto, only hours after Scott Peterson was arraigned in the murder of her daughter and unborn grandson, Sharon Rocha faced the cameras and the world in a singular display of the most gracious dignity and the most unfathomable rage. “My heart aches for [Laci] and Connor,” she said, edging ever closer to the very limits of her composure, yet somehow pressing on. “I literally get sick to my stomach when I allow myself to think about what may have happened to them. No parent should ever have to think about the way their child was murdered.” But now, what else can she think about?

Incredibly, Rocha turned from her own grief and opened her heart to thank all those who worked these last few months to find Laci, searching and searching even as any hope of finding her alive faded into the depths of San Francisco Bay. And now for Rocha and all of Laci’s family and friends, the anguish of wondering about her fate becomes the anguish of knowing it. And once again, the circus begins.

With the war in Iraq now in the mop-up stage, the media are forced to go off in search of the next Big Story with which to fill the 24-hour news cycle. The SARS outbreak might have legs, but it offers little in the way of visual stimulation. How many shots of people walking down the street in surgical masks can you watch before you reach for the remote? No, short of a war, few spectacles can fill the bill like a Big Trial. This one won’t be another O.J. carnival, for which we can all be thankful, but with its elements of violence, adultery, and illicit sex, it promises to keep millions of eyes glued to the sets for months and months to come. Only a celebrity angle would improve this story’s appeal to the chattering classes.

So, what to expect? Scott Peterson has been charged with the murders of his wife and their unborn child, Connor. In California, multiple murder is a “special circumstance” that opens the door to a possible death penalty. James Brazelton, the district attorney for Stanislaus County, told reporters he didn’t believe the case was “anything but a death-penalty case at this time.” A final determination on whether to seek Peterson’s execution will be made by May 19.

Police and prosecutors seem confident in their case against Peterson, but one must assume this confidence is based on evidence not yet made public. Granted, Peterson has from the very beginning behaved like a guilty man. He phoned the police only 45 minutes after supposedly discovering his wife missing on Christmas Eve last year. It seems an innocent man, at least one unburdened by paranoid delusions, might wait a bit longer and explore more benign explanations before making a report to the police. He explained his own absence from the home by saying he had spent the day fishing at the Berkeley Marina, which, as it happens, is near where Laci’s and Connor’s bodies were discovered last week. If one assumes Peterson is guilty (and it’s hard not to), he must have gone with the fishing story because he knew he had been seen at the Marina. But to have offered that alibi, he must have been confident the bodies would never turn up. Time and tides can have their way with a weighted-down body, and if the bodies were indeed in the water since Christmas Eve, the only explanation for their washing up only last Friday is that they were somehow anchored to the bottom. There have been reports that police discovered concrete residue in Peterson’s small fishing boat, the presence of which will be difficult to explain away to a jury. Besides, everyone knows that all married men spend the day before Christmas desperately rushing about looking for gifts for their wives. Fishing? Tell us another one!

Then there is the matter of Peterson’s extra-marital dalliance. In January, Peterson admitted on ABC’s Good Morning America that he had had an affair with a Fresno massage therapist. And he claimed to have informed Laci of the affair, but said the revelation had not caused “a lot of arguing.” That one strikes me as an even bigger whopper than the fishing story.

That brings us to Peterson’s arrest on Friday. Under surveillance by police officers, Peterson was picked up in the parking lot of the Torrey Pines golf course when the cops began to fear he would flee to Mexico. He had grown a goatee, and his hair was dyed a color most reporters have charitably described as blond. He also was said to have had $10,000 in cash with him at the time, and unless he was playing a round with Michael Jordan, this will be another detail that might be difficult to explain to a jury.

Peterson’s parents have expressed their belief in his innocence, but it seems odd they haven’t backed it up with the cash to hire a top-flight lawyer. From all appearances they live rather comfortably in Solana Beach, an upscale suburb north of San Diego, yet at his arraignment Peterson was represented by a public defender.

But all of this seems to fall short of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, especially here in California where juries have been known to believe almost anything. I’m hoping the cops have a few more cards left to play.

Laci Peterson would have turned 28 on May 4; Connor was due to arrive on February 10. May they rest in peace. And may they find justice.

— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.


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