Friday, November 12, 2004


I can remember the O.J. trial. Americans didn't have much to think about back then and a good, scandalous celebrity murder trial was just the thing to fill up some empty days and keep one occupied. It began, as I recall, with that car chase, with O.J. a slow crawl...from the police and onlookers cheering him on. The next thing you knew, here was O.J., handcuffed and taken away to the slammer. It was downright exciting.

It is amazing how enmeshed Americans can become in other people's lives. The O.J. trial is over, the prosecution and defense have gone on to other challenges, and O.J., guilty or not, is inhabiting the golf courses in Florida and hitting the headlines occasionally with this or that infraction. His name has become synonymous with "Guilty as Charged", and I don't know which is worse...the "shunning" rendered him by the American people, at least the Caucasian American people, or a prison term. It must be a miserable existence, to know that you have been blacklisted by the very folks who used to throng in admiration as a sports fans!

Now, we are enmeshed in another trial, that of Scott Peterson. I usually pay little attention to this or that murder trial in states far away from my own, but no one listening to the news today can avoid the Peterson trial. We all know that his wife, Laci, nine months pregnant, disappeared and that her body and her baby's body showed up later in the very waters where Scott claimed to have been fishing. Fishing on Christmas Eve, no less.

It seems almost evident that this man and his wife had a knockdown dragout brawl and it ended in tragedy. It seems almost evident that all this nonsense about fishing in the very bay where the bodies were found is just too much coincidence for anyone to believe. It seems that any jury with any common sense would realize this is the case.

But what if it isn't the case?

And what if we, the American people, are too quick to judge and jump to conclusions and believe the prosecution's case even though, time and again, DNA tests have proven that many people sent to Death Row just don't belong there? I can think of nothing worse than sitting on Death Row in a tiny cell, contemplating your almost certain death, knowing yourself to be innocent of the crime you are accused of committing. How many innocent people have been put to death? We will never know.

As time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to prove yourself innocent, even if you are. Justice in this country seems to be some sort of a game, with the prosecutors racking up points and the defense lawyers playing the race card, the Twinkie defense, or any other excuse they can imagine. The prosecutors very often do not show evidence that would help prove the accused to be innocent. The defense lawyers present anything from sexual abuse to mental problems as excuses. Truth seems to be lost in the shuffle. And, once convicted, even getting a DNA test is a long, uphill battle. Judges are reluctant to grant this permission.

The truth is, it is an adversarial system. Only one side can win, while the other is doomed to be a loser. Everyone likes to win and, very often, there are great financial gains for winning. Prosecutors can chalk up a victory and go on to greater glory. Denfense lawyers can charge higher fees and become the Clarence Darrows of their generation.

The Peterson case is not the only criminal matter you see almost daily on the news media. There was Kobe Bryant...did he or didn't he? There is Robert Blake and the pathetic story of his marriage and his obvious adoration of his little daughter. There is Michael Jackson, the clincher, the ultimate peculiar, wild, nutty question, what goes on at Neverland in the world of perpetual childhood?

We listen to this collection of titillating trivia, fascinated by the glimpses into the private lives of other people, mourn the tragic passing of Laci and her baby, and wonder about it all. We do this as we get very little news from the Iraqi battlefront, watch this trivia when we know there are young, pitifully young, soldiers crawling around the desert, fighting for their lives. We watch these exposes of the private lives of other people and our minds, for a moment, are taken away from the dreadful beheadings and kidnappings and tragedies of the Middle East.

Perhaps it is comforting to know that, even in the midst of a chilling war, people continue to face adversity in their private lives. Perhaps we listen and watch because it is better to watch someone else's trouble, rather than face trouble oneself. Or perhaps we watch it simply because of the boredom of our humdrum daily lives.

Whatever it is, most of us have become as punitive and convinced of guilt as Nancy Grace. We may as well just forget about "Innocent Until Proven Guilty", because most American people have already made up their minds about Scott Peterson. If he is declared innocent, he may be forced to join O.J. in the land of the forgotten. Because innocence is difficult to find in America. Perhaps because it so seldom exists.