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America's fascination with the Peterson case

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted April 28, 2003

According to a recent Chicago Sun-Times piece, "District Attorney James Brazelton said Scott Peterson acted intentionally, deliberately and with premeditation in killing 27-year-old Laci Peterson and Conner Peterson, the couple's unborn child". Their bodies washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay, where husband/father Scott Peterson claimed to have been fishing on-or-about the time that Laci had vanished. Interestingly, it appears that Peterson's fishing gear had not been used. There have already been a plethora of reports circulating regarding the Peterson case, including one from a police source indicating that Laci's body had been weighed down with "cement anchors". And tidal charts of San Francisco Bay were found on Peterson's computer, which begs the question -- Was he fearful that the remains would eventually wash ashore?

Scott Peterson in court on April 21
Scott Peterson in court on April 21

Scott Peterson claims to be innocent of the double-murder, but to the average person he appears as guilty as sin. If, indeed the media is portraying Peterson accurately, then we have a brutal rat on our hands – a dangerous scoundrel who lacks a conscience. On the Internet, Scott Peterson is being derisively referred to as "Scott Evil", the son of the infamous "Dr. Evil" brought to us by comedian Mike Myers. You also get the sense that people lack a certain amount of faith in the California justice system, which failed to convict OJ Simpson despite overwhelming evidence. However, that was a different time and a different social environment. I wouldn't worry here. My hunch is that Scott Peterson will eventually cop-a-plea in order to avoid execution.

Police apprehended Peterson on Good Friday as he appeared poised to escape across the border into Mexico. And there were a host of circumstances that raise considerable doubts about Peterson's character, as he: a) provided a Florida driver's license that used his mother's name Jacqueline, b) changed his appearance, having grown a goatee and lightened his haircolor, and, c) possessed $10,000 in cash. There were other reports circulating that Peterson had his brother's identification on his person, and that he had applied for a passport in his brother's name, as well.

My mother was absolutely ecstatic that authorities finally arrested Scott Peterson in the deaths of his wife Laci and their unborn son, an almost full-term, viable fetus. My Mom is not alone – many people are chomping-at-the-bit for this guy to be brought to ultimate justice. And make no mistake, these high profile cases reveal salient aspects about American values. This is the story of an ostensible "All American" couple that went terribly awry.

No doubt, it's all very sad indeed. However, until recently, the case had barely appeared on my radar screen since Laci's disappearance on that fateful Christmas Eve a little more than four months ago (I was preoccupied with the war heating up in Iraq). At the get-go of the Peterson case, I caught tidbits here and there on the cable news channels, and it was fairly evident that Laci was the victim of foul play, and her husband Scott was the prime suspect. I figured I'd focus in again when the arrest was made. In the interim, there was little sense in wasting my time and energy on all the media hype and speculation that abounded.

Now comes the pivotal question. Why is this case captivating America?

Well Scott Peterson may ultimately be acquitted of double murder, but that's not what is on the minds of people at this time. Like it or not, Scott Peterson projects as the consummate bad-guy. Americans have consistently seen an emotionally flat, dare I say "cold-blooded", individual who has failed to exhibit the appropriate angst regarding his missing, and now confirmed dead, eight-month pregnant wife. A beautiful young woman and her baby have been "done dirty", and Americans want the perpetrator or perpetrators appropriately punished. And, truly, people are interested in understanding how things went tragically wrong for a couple that should have been immensely happy. Moreover, there's the deep concern, at least among some quarters of society (the traditional values crowd), that we're slowly drifting toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and that we need to put the skids on societal immorality. In other words, the Peterson case represents an opportunity to convey an all-important message – if you commit a heinous crime, be prepared to forfeit your life. And, indeed, the prosecution is asking for the death penalty for Scott Peterson.

Laci Peterson in a July 2002 photo
Laci Peterson in a July 2002 photo

From the inception of media coverage, people intuitively sensed that something was profoundly amiss with Scott Peterson. Reports that Peterson was selling off Laci's vehicle and their marital home didn't exactly engender positive feelings among the public. And as time progressed, he certainly appeared to be a self-centered, habitual liar that was incredibly manipulative to boot. Furthermore, all anyone has to do is look at the photos of the very petit, very pretty, very pregnant Laci, and your heart naturally goes out to her and her unborn baby. Could you imagine that big brute beating on that vulnerable little lady? So, the prevailing feeling that emerged among people is a simple one -- Get the scoundrel! Make him pay the price for his dastardly deed! I know people shouldn't prejudge a case, but the unvarnished reality is that we do it all the time.

Given all that has been promulgated by the media, it seems that Laci and the new baby were going to cramp Scott Peterson's lifestyle. Hence, he allegedly orchestrated their deaths. Apparently, this guy had been a promiscuous sort, or, to put it gingerly, "a ladies' man" who wanted to live extravagantly on the country-club scene. Frankly, either Laci or at least one of her family members should have had Scott Peterson correctly pegged as manipulative and dishonest. Or maybe they were all in considerable denial, and unduly influenced by Peterson's personal charm. But for that matter, Scott's parents are clearly in denial as well, as they affirm his innocence in the face of mounting evidence and appear to be significant enablers of his dysfunctional behaviors. Investigators must thoroughly look into Peterson's background, which no doubt they are doing. I would not be surprised if Peterson had been involved in other criminal activities, as well.

Of course, I am not a psychiatrist so you can take this with the proverbial grain of salt. But from my perspective, we're dealing with a full-fledged sociopath in the person of Scott Peterson who views himself as "superior, special and unique", playing by his own set of rules. However, "sociopath" is now a politically incorrect, somewhat antiquated term that is largely shunned. "Sociopath" is roughly akin to the diagnosis of "Narcissistic Personality Disorder", that can be found in the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders". Peterson does indeed present as grandiose with a sense of entitlement, extremely arrogant and interpersonally exploitive. Most importantly, and this is key, he lacks empathy for others. In other words, Peterson appears to be a selfish creep who only cares about himself.

Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.

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