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Scott Peterson’s guilt, explained

The Innocence Project has taken on Scott Peterson. But there are limits to reasonable doubt. 

Peterson has close-cropped, dark hair. He wears a suit and tie and his expression is solemn.
Scott Peterson appears at a hearing in Stanislaus County Superior Court on September 2, 2003, in Modesto, California. 
Al Golub-Pool/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In 2004, in one of the most high-profile trials of the past two decades, Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife, Laci Peterson, 27, and their unborn son, Conner, with whom Laci was eight months pregnant. Laci disappeared from their home in Modesto, California, on Christmas Eve in 2002. The subsequent media frenzy over her disappearance drove national headlines for months. In spring of 2003, the bodies of both mother and son washed up in San Francisco Bay, just a few miles from where Peterson had gone fishing the day Laci disappeared.

It’s rare for a criminal prosecution to have as much incriminating circumstantial evidence pointing toward the guilt of a single individual as prosecutors had in the case of Scott Peterson — “overwhelming evidence” with “no other reasonable explanation,” as one attorney who followed the trial described at the time. The discovery included 42,000 pages of documents. The evidence against Peterson included weeks of apparent planning, forensic evidence including mitochondrial DNA, and months of suspicious behavior both before and after the fact. Yet ever since a controversial 2017 docuseries helped circulate the idea that the case against Peterson was manufactured by a media circus rather than the facts of the investigation, websleuths have increasingly latched on to and bolstered belief in Peterson’s innocence.

Last week, the Los Angeles Innocence Project announced that they had taken on Peterson’s case, making a “claim of actual innocence that is supported by newly discovered evidence.” It’s unclear what that evidence might be, but speculation has run rampant, mainly focusing on details related to an infamous but unconnected robbery that happened across the street around the time of Laci’s death.

So how did we wind up here? It’s always healthy for the justice system to undergo scrutiny; after all, the court has already found that Peterson’s penalty phase was unjust. In 2020, Peterson’s original death sentence was overturned due to improper jury selection, and he was resentenced to life without parole. That’s arguably a good outcome, a case of the justice system self-correcting.

Yet the crusade for Peterson’s innocence seems to have very little to do with justice or even the actual facts of the case and more to do with external influences — from the bandwagon effect to the outsize influence of a few podcasters and the gamification of true crime itself.

A media circus does not a false conviction make

If you remember anything about the Scott Peterson case, you likely remember the Amber Frey of it all: Frey, Peterson’s girlfriend, found herself thrust into the center of a high-profile crime and under a constant media spotlight after she came forward to police. Frey did not know Peterson was married; he had told her weeks before Laci’s disappearance that he had lost his wife.

Frey was a star witness for the prosecution, a take-no-BS type who cooperated with authorities for months and made recordings of her conversations with Peterson. These included a notorious phone call Peterson made to her on New Year’s Eve while attending a candlelight vigil for his murdered wife, in which he claimed to be in Paris, pretending the background noise of all Laci’s mournful supporters was coming from tourists at the Eiffel Tower.

(If you didn’t know that was a real thing that happened, then hello and welcome to a truly head-turning case.)

You probably also remember the incessant media coverage of this case at the peak of the 24-hour TV news cycle. Peterson’s infamous interview with Diane Sawyer, in which he laughed in all the wrong places, led to endless analysis of his psychology and what it said about his guilt or innocence. Meanwhile, Frey appeared in an incendiary press conference, where she discussed the litany of lies Peterson had fed her both before and after Laci’s disappearance.

Recent advocates for Peterson’s innocence have heavily implied that the media created a false narrative of his guilt. This theory was a core part of Peterson’s denied 2012 appeal, as well as A&E’s inflammatory docuseries The Murder of Laci Peterson. But there’s a difference between media interest in a case and media manipulation of a case. In fact, much of the contemporaneous reporting on the Peterson trial was fair and even sympathetic to the defense.

The reality is that no amount of media sympathy could fully ameliorate the damage created by Peterson’s own behavior.

Scott Peterson never needed the media’s help to seem guilty

Scott Peterson seemed to have the perfect life: a good job, a beautiful, smart wife who adored him, and a baby on the way. But (stop us if you’ve heard this one before) not everything was as it seemed. Peterson had been cheating on Laci with a string of women since at least the beginning of their five-year marriage. He did not want to be a father and told relatives he was “hoping for infertility.” Adding to the pressure was the intense financial strain he was under; his business was failing, and two-thirds of his paycheck went toward paying off loans and interest on $20,000 in credit card debt.

On the morning of December 24, 2002, Scott Peterson claimed to have left Laci — his eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant wife — preparing to do some intense housecleaning, while he stopped off at his warehouse and then went fishing.

Peterson would later tell authorities that he decided to take an impromptu fishing trip to Berkeley Marina, around 90 miles away and past several other more convenient bodies of water. He had previously told multiple neighbors and relatives that he planned to go golfing that day, and later lied to some of them about where he’d gone. As an explanation, he would claim to police that he decided it was “too cold” to go golfing, so by his telling, he spontaneously decided to go sit in a boat on the windy bay in 40-degree weather instead.

But nothing about the trip to the marina was spontaneous. Peterson, who was not a regular fisherman — he hadn’t had a regular fishing license since 1994 — began researching fishing boats to buy on December 7, 2002. On December 8, he did extensive web searches for fishing supplies and tidal currents around the bay area, even zooming in on Brooks Island, where authorities believe he took Laci’s body on Christmas Eve. He paid cash for a small fishing boat on December 9 — the same day that he told Amber Frey that he had “lost” his wife and that this would be his first Christmas without her. On December 23, the day before his supposedly unplanned fishing trip, he purchased a fishing license valid for two days only.

Although he originally lied and told police he left home on Christmas Eve at 9:30 am, cellphone records placed him at or near home at 10:08 am, just 10 minutes before a neighbor found Laci’s dog running loose in the street and returned him to the Petersons’ yard. After eventually driving to Berkeley Marina and fishing there for less than an hour, he arrived back home at around 4:30 pm, washed his fishing clothes, ate some pizza, and then called Laci’s mother to tell her that her daughter was “missing.”

Despite the reams of circumstantial evidence, direct evidence in the case was scant. Peterson’s blood was found on the door of his truck, for which he gave conflicting explanations. A few drops of blood were also found on their bedroom comforter. Caught in a pair of pliers recovered from Peterson’s boat, police found hair matched to Laci’s through mitochondrial DNA testing, an inconclusive but still genetic match — but Laci allegedly never knew about the boat. Prosecutors also found evidence that he’d made multiple cement anchors, only one of which was located, and which they believed he used to weigh down Laci’s body.

Peterson’s odd behavior continued after Laci disappeared. He made strange statements to friends and relatives about the cuts on his hand; he displayed a prevailing lack of emotion; he seemed reluctant to participate in search parties to look for her or press conferences about her.

His cooperation with police “was always conditional,” investigators told People in 2005. “He was concerned about the wrong things.” He made repeated non-fishing trips to the marina, 90 miles away, only to “stare into the bay” and then leave again after a few minutes. This was in January, months before Laci’s body would eventually be found in the bay.

The same day their bodies were identified, Scott Peterson dyed his hair, borrowed his brother’s photo ID, and headed for the Mexico border with over $10,000 in cash. The final jury needed just seven hours to convict him and ultimately sentence him to death.

Innocence advocates have to ignore much of the evidence to make their case

The biggest argument Peterson’s defenders have that another perpetrator committed the murders is that a burglary occurred just down the street. Peterson and his advocates argue that the two perpetrators of that burglary, Donald Pearce and Steven Todd, burgled the house on the morning of December 24 and that in the process, they abducted Laci Peterson. Since (according to Peterson) Laci was walking her dog that morning, his supporters typically believe she must have run across the burglars in the middle of the robbery, attracted their attention, and been murdered as a result. They theorize that Pearce and Todd waited for several days and then dumped her body in the region of the bay where Scott Peterson went fishing on December 24, all in order to frame him for the murder.

But this idea doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, for numerous reasons. Even if we accept the absurd hypothesis that two thieves would abduct and kill a pedestrian in broad daylight, do nothing about it for a day or two until their murder victim became headline news, and then risk driving 90 miles to dump the high-profile victim’s body in an area where they already knew police were searching, all to frame a husband whom police already suspected, the timeline doesn’t work.

Laci went missing on December 24. The robbers didn’t break into the neighboring house until the morning of the 26th. Both Pearce and Todd were investigated and cleared by investigators in 2003, and both cooperated fully with police. And even if the robbers could have lied about when they broke into the home, that still doesn’t work, because the residents of the home they robbed, the Medina family, didn’t leave their house on December 24 until approximately 10:33 am based on their cellphone records — nearly a half hour after Scott Peterson left and 15 minutes after the dog was seen wandering the streets solo.

Another conspiracy theory was one originally touted by Peterson’s defense at trial: the idea that Laci was killed as part of a ritual sacrifice and that Conner was removed from the womb alive. The main reason such a ludicrous theory could emerge (a theory dismissed by media at the time as classic satanic panic) is that the bodies washed ashore at different times; however, the pathologist who conducted the autopsies on both bodies was confident that Conner died in the womb as a result of his mother’s death.

Among the most common reasons people give for arguing that Laci was still alive and well on the morning of the 24th is that multiple witnesses claimed to have seen her walking her dog. But according to investigators, none of those eyewitness reports were consistent or verifiable. Many were based on media reports of what Laci was wearing — reports that originally came from Peterson, who claimed that Laci had been wearing black pants. When her body was found, however, she was wearing khaki pants. This matched what her sister had seen her wearing the night of December 23 — the night authorities believe Peterson murdered her.

How do we know when someone is guilty of murder?

One of the pitfalls of living in an era of advanced forensic science is that it’s easier for a defense to argue that a dearth of forensics must equate to a dearth of evidence. But for most of human history, the primary way we’ve decided whodunnit is by collecting good old-fashioned clues — that is, circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence isn’t always compelling, and it can often be explained away effectively by a defendant. But the more there is of it, the less reasonable alternate explanations become. In Scott Peterson’s case, he and his defense team have ready answers for every piece of incriminating evidence against him, except for the biggest question of all: Why is there so much incriminating evidence against him?

As a society, we pay a lot of attention to what it means to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. We spend much less time contemplating what unreasonable doubt might look like. Perhaps we should be paying more attention to the latter, if only so more cases like this one don’t squander too much of our cultural time and attention. The number of true crime devotees and influencers who believe in Peterson’s innocence may be growing, but not every claim of innocence is built on rational thinking.

To justify Scott Peterson’s behavior, you have to posit a set of extraordinary circumstances, including that he just so happened to mention his wife’s demise to his girlfriend, coincidentally in the very same week he abruptly evinced an interest in fishing for the first time since the ’90s, coincidentally buying the same boat where her hair would later be found, after he coincidentally went fishing in the same region of the bay where her body would eventually be found, all while coincidentally lying repeatedly about his own actions. In a fictional scenario, it might be fun to imagine that all those details could be the result of some bizarre surprise explanation. But in the real world, a world where homicide by their intimate partners is a leading cause of death for pregnant women, we know better.

Or at least we should — if only for the sake of the next Laci Peterson.

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