Like many a tab-ophile, I’ve been avidly following the trial of Scott Peterson, the Modesto, Calif., fertilizer salesman convicted of murdering his 8-months-pregnant wife, Laci, and his about-to-be-born son, Conner, on Christmas Eve two years ago so that he could spend more time with his mistress. Now the jury has to decide whether to recommend to recommend the death penalty, or, alternatively, life in prison for the dapper 32-year-old Peterson, on the basis of whether there are “aggravating” circumstances, such as the brutality of the crime, or “mitigating” circumstances, such as the murderer’s life-circumstances. (See my Shed a Tear for Scott Peterson, Dec. 2.)
The crime looked pretty darned brutal to me–Laci’s headless body with son attached by umbilical cord was found four months later in the San Francisco Bay–and so it did to the jurors, many of whom wept openly on hearing the evidence. The defense lawyers have been trying to get the jury to weep over their client, too, but that’s been tough, since Scott Peterson grew up in a prosperous middle-class household with adoring parents, sisters, and brothers. So the lawyers have had to content themselves with testimony that Peterson was a great golfer and gave everyone nice Christmas presents [although I myself wouldn’t have brought up the subject of Christmas]. Yesterday, his ailing mother, Jackie Peterson, took the stand, and although she couldn’t exactly testify that Scott had a tough childhood, she pointed out that she herself had had a tough childhood, having been raised in an orphanage by nuns. How this could turn your son into a killer I dunno, and I’m inclined to agree with this expert contacted by the San Francisco Chronicle who thinks that the defense evidence is something Scott Peterson could have peddled on his salesman’s route:
“‘Golf. Golf. Golf. I find it difficult to see how that should be mitigating,” said Chuck Smith, a former San Mateo County prosecutor who has followed the case closely.
“‘Most of the people we execute are people from horrible backgrounds who were abused and left to grow up on the streets or in crack houses or the like,'” said Smith. ‘So what’s the message here: We’re not supposed to execute people who come from privileged backgrounds, grown up with loving parents, loving siblings, being taken to places like Santa Barbara, Catalina and Monte Carlo. It is sick to suggest that this evidence mitigates the murders he has been convicted of.'”
What riles me about the Peterson case, though, isn’t efforts like that described above–that’s par for the course, to use a Scott Peterson-style golfing trope–but the lack of sympathy for Laci Peterson among supposedly woman-loving, domestic violence-hating liberals. So on Tuesday I blasted Dahlia Lithwick of Slate for whining that it wasn’t fair for the jury to have to hear “emotional” testimony about the brutality of the murder, presumably because gee, the jury might vote that Scott Peterson should fry, and as good liberals we can’t have that. Lithwick thinks that executing Peterson would be mere “vengeance,” whereas I argue that it would be retributive justice, society’s exacting a fair penalty from a double killer. (See my Liberals for Scott Peterson, Dec. 6.)
We’ve since received some thoughtful e-mails on the subject from InkWell readers. Here’s “Justine”:
“…I have to express my confusion when you discuss the death penalty. Retribution? That generally means one of two things. It can mean that you get recieve something back from it. But society obviously does not derive much of a benefit through execution, besides the satisfaction of ‘that murdering #$^$%# got what he deserved.’
“That sounds an awful lot like revenge to me. It can also be used theologically, that everyone deserves equal punishment in the end, a balance of good and evil of sorts. Although the law ignores theology (and rightfully so), to make use of this definition would still imply that the issue is then, God’s issue to handle, and not ours. So why are we so concerned with doling out to people what they ‘deserve’? We don’t derive any benefit. Can’t we just lock up the man and be done with it? Revenge sounds so nasty, but retribution just seems like using different words to describe the same thing. I am in high school, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think they called that sophistry?”
You’ve raised an interesting question, Justine, and here are a few thoughts in response. When a crime is commited, you might say that three kinds of justice come into play: God’s justice, the victim’s family’s desire for vengeance, and society’s justice under the law. Society can’t–and shouldn’t–involve itself in God’s justice. And society shouldn’t, for the sake of order, let the victim’s family exact vengeance, which might involve cutting Scott Peterson very slowly into very small pieces. But the perpetrator of a crime hasn’t simply injured his victim; he’s also rent the social fabric, and that’s where society has a proper role role in deciding what sort of penalty or “retribution” is due. The people of the state of California believe that the penalty for heinous forms of murder without mitigating circumstances is death. Other jurisdictions disagree. But that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about retributive justice.
And here’s another e-mail on the Peterson case, from W.W.:
“This whole victim-statement business is cr–. We decided centuries ago that murder is a bad thing, and we have had years to refine what first-degree murder is. If we are a nation of laws, it is just as bad to murder a vile nasty person as it is to murder a sweetheart. What should happen is, the penalty for first degree murder should be death, with the obligation on the killer to beg for mercy.”
Hmm, there’s something to be said for this point of view. Do other InkWell readers have thoughts?
Finally, here’s another e-mail from our Latin-loving regular reader G.A., who says we should make like Caesar and divide Scott Peterson into only three parts. Kidding! G.A. actually has more thoughts on Politically Correct Latin (Nov. 3), my take on Swedish classicist Tore Janson’s new book A Natural History of Latin, in which Janson argues that the ancient Romans, with all that slaveholding and burning Carthage, made him “sick.”
“I realized that the Romans were the first red-staters: 1. They were very religious. 2. They acted unilaterally. 3. They were imperialistic. 4. They believed in moral values. 5. With all those chariot races, they invented NASCAR!”
Yes, and the old Roman phrase “patria potestas” was Latin for “NASCAR dad.”