Prosecutors plan to play TV interviews they say are filled with defendant's lies

May 31, 2004 

Even if he doesn't testify, Scott Peterson's voice will be heard during his trial.

His recorded voice, that is -- taped by television crews a month after his pregnant wife vanished from their Modesto home at Christmastime 2002.

Prosecutors won the right in March to use Peterson's words against him in the trial, scheduled to start Tuesday, saying his myriad of lies help tell their version of events.

Peterson's attorney, Mark Geragos of Los Angeles, had argued that his client's comments are irrelevant, but the judge agreed with prosecutors that the interviews could provide insight into Peterson's state of mind.

"In most (criminal) cases, the defendants haven't made a lot of statements like this," said James Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor. "It seems they (Peterson prosecutors) are going to make his lies a big part of their case."

The interviews are especially important, some legal experts say, because People v. Peterson appears to rely heavily on circumstantial evidence.

Authorities presented no murder weapon, no cause of death and no eyewitnesses at Peterson's fall preliminary hearing. They conceded in a February court document that "some parts of the people's case is circumstantial," and argued that his interviews could support their theory of how the slaying occurred.

Prosecutors hope to convince a jury that Peterson deserves a lethal injection for murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner.

America's most-watched murder suspect seemed to take a page out of former Rep. Gary Condit's public relations playbook: refuse to comment for several weeks, grant a disastrous interview on national television, then clam up again.

Peterson played poorly on TV

Condit, Modesto's congressman until two weeks after Laci Peterson went missing, never faced charges in the disappearance and death of former federal intern Chandra Levy of Modesto. Many blamed his failure to get re-elected on missteps with the media, including his "I'm not a perfect man" sit-down with TV's Connie Chung that drew a near-universal thumbs-down.

Peterson's chat with Diane Sawyer of ABC's "Good Morning America" generated similar reviews when it aired Jan. 28 and 29, 2003 -- a few days after his Fresno girlfriend Amber Frey outed their affair.

He granted three more interviews Jan. 29, with Sacramento TV reporter Gloria Gomez, and with Jodi Hernandez and Ted Rowlands, both of Bay Area stations.

Pundits railed on Peterson's refusal to answer several questions; he said police asked him not to discuss parts of their investigation. Commentators also raised eyebrows at his tears, noting that he made little effort to wipe them when talking with Hernandez, preferring to let them roll down his cheeks.

In the Gomez interview, Peterson periodically looked directly at the camera, as if addressing viewers, when asserting innocence.

And pundits had a field day with his confused verb tense while talking about his wife and child.

"She was amazing, she is amazing," he told Sawyer. Of his son, he said, "That was, it's so hard."

Geragos, a TV commentator at the time, repeatedly questioned whether any defense lawyer in his right mind would allow such interviews. He said: "If somebody wants to file on this guy (Peterson) for false statements or obstruction, they've got a perfect case. He's already locked himself into a couple of arguable misdemeanors, maybe -- quite possibly a felony violation."

At the time, Peterson was represented by Modesto attorney Kirk McAllister, who told a Bee reporter a few days before the interviews that he had ordered his client not to talk.

How many ways to call it a lie?

Prosecutors caused a stir in February when they filed a court brief in hopes of using Peterson's media comments in his trial, which was moved to San Mateo County because of pervasive publicity. In the brief, prosecutor Rick Distaso used variations of "lies" 20 times to describe Peterson's statements.

In a Redwood City courtroom the next day, Geragos hit the roof, charging that prosecutors intentionally wrote "totally false" statements "designed to get headlines." Since then, Judge Alfred Delucchi has reviewed briefs from both sides before making them public.

Distaso's brief accused Peterson of deception regarding his wife, marriage and affair. He also lied about various aspects of the case, including what time he left home the day his wife vanished, large items he concealed in his pickup truck, blood in his pickup and cement evidence in his warehouse, Distaso charged.

"Like watching a train wreck"

Not mentioned in the prosecution document were Peterson's comments regarding Marc Klaas, the father of murder victim Polly Klaas, and The Bee.

Peterson told a Bay Area TV crew that he had spoken with Klaas, but Klaas the next day denied it.

"I have never in my life spoken to Scott Peterson," Klaas told KTVU. "Where he comes off thinking he can make a statement like that in the public forum and get away with it, I don't know. … This guy is stacking lie upon lie. It's like watching a train wreck."

And Peterson told NBC 11 that The Bee printed a photograph of him holding a candle in a cup at a vigil for his missing wife, "but it's reported that's an alcoholic beverage." The truth: The Bee's report said nothing about alcohol.

"On their own, the statements are not important," said Ruth Jones, a former New York City prosecutor teaching at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "If that's all (prosecutors) had, they would be pretty hard-pressed to even bring this case to trial.

"But they're very important when you're talking about a circumstantial-evidence case," Jones continued. "When you piece it all together, plus add Scott's lying about some facts, collectively it could show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Three degrees of telling a lie Hammer said misstatements generally fall into three categories: mistakes, white lies and "really big lies." The last, if proven, can be harmful to a defendant, he said.

"Lies are evidence of consciousness of guilt," Hammer said. "Innocent people don't need to explain things away.

"If you can show a pattern of lies going right to the heart of the crime," he added, "then you can argue that he concocted a story to cover up his role in the murder."

Modesto defense attorney Ramon Magana, who has tried cases before Delucchi, noted that judges typically give jurors carefully crafted sets of instructions near the end of a case, before they deliberate. A template used in California courts reads:

"Sometimes a witness may say something that is not consistent with something else he said. If you decide that a witness has deliberately testified untruthfully about something important, you may choose not to believe anything that witness said. On the other hand, if you think the witness testified untruthfully about some things but told the truth about others, you may accept the part you think is true and ignore the rest."

Geragos may provide alternative interpretations of each of his client's disputed statements, Magana said.

"There is always an explanation," he said. "Whether it is reasonable and credible is another thing."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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