The O.J.-ification of Laci

Posted: Jun 02, 2003 12:00 AM

My beef isn't, as some journalism-school types sniff, that the Laci Peterson story has received too much coverage. My complaint is that cable networks might help get a guilty man off.

The preliminary hearing for Scott Peterson -- who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he murdered his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner -- hasn't begun. So it's the boring season of the story, the factual doldrums.

Still, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC air hours of talking-head debates, whether there's news or not. This is when TV news is at its most dangerous, as standards become dispensable and prosecutors tend to obey orders sealing evidence, while defense teams generally aren't so scrupulous.

This week, "defense sources" told NBC's Dan Abrams that they had produced a list of "four (or) possibly five people," who may be -- you'll remember this from the O.J. trial -- The Real Killers.

The satanic cult theory on The Real Killers was launched -- with its salacious exploitation of the fact that Laci's whole body didn't wash up on the bay shore. A series of supporting news stories, some based on one anonymous source, followed.

Fox News' Geraldo Rivera reported "exclusively" that a "defense source" told him that Laci's body had been "carved up" and "there were internal parts missing." (The dissection twist, expert TV panelists argued, supported the Satanic Cult Real Killers theory.)

On Thursday came leaks of the autopsy. MSNBC reported that "plastic tape" was found around the neck of Laci's unborn son. "Finding in Peterson case could be used to bolster defense theory on killings," read the MSNBC website's sub-headline. The story continued, "The finding could be used by the defense team for Scott Peterson, Laci's husband, who is accused in her death, to bolster its theory that Laci and the fetus were killed in a satanic ritual."

Stop the presses -- there may be litter in the bay. In fact, what NBC called "plastic tape" a reporter who read the leaked autopsy described as "nylon and twine."'

Claudia Cowan of Fox News argued that networks are covering both sides. "We're hearing from the victims now in the autopsy reports," she argued -- and when the reporting is solid, she's right.

But when other reporters repeat defense spin as if it is revelatory, well, they blur the line between reporting and shilling.

You have to wonder if some reporters talk up the defense, because it makes for a more interesting story. Besides, defense teams usually leak more than district attorneys.

The dynamics end up co-opting some reporters.

I spent one day at the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. Prosecutors spent what seemed like hours in an attempt to stipulate that an indentation in Nicole Simpson's back came from a bra hook.

I asked some of the big names and print grunts covering the trial why prosecutors were wasting so much time on a bra hook. My peers argued, breathlessly, how necessary it was to explain the little dent, lest defense attorney Johnny Cochran later use the dent to support a scenario involving The Real Killers.

To my undying shame, I figured they must know what they were talking about. Baloney. They were so infatuated with the celebrity of the trial that they couldn't see guilty when it stared them in the face. Their attitude had to rub off on jurors.

We don't know if Scott Peterson killed Laci and Conner. If he did, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution.

But a burden also lies with the media -- the obligation to not be in awe of every gimmicky bit of "evidence," to not marvel at forensic gymnastics while ignoring bread-and-butter evidence.

There was a time when cooler heads warned against the media trying a man in public, not in a court of law.

In the age of 24-hour news, there is a danger of the media acquitting a man in public, and then in a court of law.