Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 23, 2003

The virtues of reserving judgment

If you served on the Scott Peterson jury, would you vote to convict him of capital murder?

I hope your answer is along the lines of “I have no idea.”

I’ve watched, listened and read as ordinary folks, experts and pundits opine on whether Scott Peterson killed his wife and unborn son.

The case has many similarities to that of Dr. Sam Shepherd, who was accused of killing his pregnant wife Marilyn in 1954. The sensational case inspired the TV series – later a movie – “The Fugitive.” Shepherd served 10 years for the murder in the Ohio penitentiary before his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court because pretrial publicity had tainted the jury.

Doubts have always swirled around Shepherd’s guilt, and a family handyman allegedly made a jailhouse confession that he had bludgeoned Marilyn Shepherd to death.

But it didn’t matter. Sam Shepherd’s life was ruined. Besides the loss of his wife and unborn child, his freedom, and 10 years of his relationship with his son, Shepherd died of liver failure just a few years after his release.

I’ve been troubled as I hear people cite unconfirmed “evidence” of Peterson’s guilt, but they usually beg important questions. Peterson allegedly had $10,000 and a fake ID when arrested (or did he?); changed his appearance in preparation to flee to Mexico (or was it so people who presumed his guilt wouldn’t recognize and harass him?); police took scores of bags of evidence from his home (but what was in them?); police suspected him all along (to the exclusion of other leads?); the bodies came ashore near the site of his alibi (were they planted?).

I don’t know if Peterson is innocent. I don’t know if he is guilty. And neither do any of the people pontificating on street corners, at water coolers, in newspapers and in television and radio studios.

Despite California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s assertion that this case is a “slam dunk,” so far, no direct, physical evidence that ties Scott Peterson to the horrific crime has been made public. Perhaps the police have it in those sealed bags they removed from the Peterson home, maybe they don’t.

We don’t know.

That evidence, if it exists, will be revealed as the preliminary hearing (during which prosecutors must convince a judge they have enough evidence to reasonably suspect Scott Peterson) and the trial get under way.

It’s nearly a sure thing that Peterson’s trial won’t happen in Stanislaus County. The trial, I’ve heard experts say, will likely be moved to a densely populated county with a large juror pool – say, perhaps, Santa Clara County.

So I’d like to urge observers to reserve judgment. They may not like Scott Peterson, but it’s only fair, especially at this early stage, to wait before deciding on his guilt.

It’s conceivable South County residents might be called to serve on Scott Peterson’s jury. And like him or not, the man deserves a fair trial.

Especially in light of the many cases we’ve seen of capital murder convictions being overturned – dead men walking wrongfully convicted and set free – the least we as a society can do is see that it doesn’t happen again.

I don’t know if Scott Peterson killed Laci and Connor. Let’s make sure an untainted jury of his peers can weigh the evidence and come to the correct decision.


This is my last column for Take 2. On Friday, I’ll begin weighing in on the The Dispatch’s Opinion page. Although the tenor of the column will change somewhat – fewer tree-toppling kittens, more weighty issues – I hope you’ll follow me deeper inside the paper and deeper into the week.



  1. […] to the opinion page. That change meant that my column shifted to a more political focus, or as I wrote at the time, “fewer tree-toppling kittens, more weighty issues.” Looking back, I’d amend […]

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