When pregnant Laci Peterson of Modesto vanished on Christmas Eve 2002, few could have predicted that her husband’s double-murder trial would captivate people around the world, driving headlines and cable talk shows and prompting some two dozen books. Several TV shows and movies followed, including at least four specials this year alone.
The latest, A&E Network’s “The Murder of Laci Peterson,” begins airing Aug. 15 with an episode each week for six consecutive weeks, stretching a total of seven hours, all without narration. Interviewed were Scott Peterson’s then-girlfriend Amber Frey, five jurors, various print and broadcast anchors and reporters, detectives, lawyers and experts. Viewers also will hear the voice of Scott Peterson himself, calling a family member from prison where he awaits appeals.
Not appearing are prosecutors and members of Laci Peterson’s family. Her mother, Sharon Rocha, told The Modesto Bee she fears the show will question whether Scott Peterson received a fair trial.
Executive producers John Marks of Left/Right and Po Kutchins of BQE Films, which made the series for A&E, spoke this week with Garth Stapley, who covered the case for The Bee and who will appear in the show. Excerpts from the recent interview:
Q: What makes “The Murder of Laci Peterson” different from all the others?
It’s an enormously complex piece with vast numbers of details that matter.
John Marks, Left/Right executive producer
Marks: We think it’s unprecedented, the number of voices and the time we give it. That was a key to unpacking everything we felt needed to be unpacked. It’s an enormously complex piece with vast numbers of details that matter. Length was critical to addressing everything we deemed to be significant.
Q: Yes, but seven hours?
“A great American epic”
Marks: Our series is profoundly ambitious, with enormous ramifications on how the media is viewed and how the criminal justice system operates. It’s a great American epic that tells us something about ourselves. To be fair to each piece requires time, and that makes us different. We’re taking this very seriously on many levels.
Q: Why interview so many people?
Marks: All of a sudden the whole story begins to open up and you see a larger picture of how it all evolved, how notions were formed from specific incidents and moments. It opens up territories of feeling and fact, and that’s really valuable to grasping how we came to view this case, and how the people shaping the case came to the conclusions they felt were worth reporting. Details tell the story, recollected in hindsight as they were unfolding at the moment. With enough dust settled and with the habeas appeal underway, there is a chance to say, `What all is in this picture?’ And we can tell it in a way that is calm, collected and methodical, that wouldn’t be possible during the unfolding drama.
Q: Give us an idea of something you learned that you didn’t know before.
Kutchins: It was fascinating to talk to these jurors, to go into the deliberating room and into the minds of the people with such an incredibly difficult job.
Q: How would you respond to people who have no interest in hearing from Scott Peterson?
Given that we have access to Scott Peterson, we will include his voice as well. ... We can’t do justice to the story if we don’t include those who see it differently.
John Marks, Left/Right executive producer
Marks: We understand the significance people place on this case, one of the most fraught, painful, controversial cases in modern history. Some people are not going to want to hear him or anything that breaks from the official narrative. All we can do is say, hey, this is the case in all its scope. Given that we have access to Scott Peterson, we will include his voice as well. But you’ll also hear from people who firmly believe in the conviction and have never wavered, who believe that the prosecution got it right. We can’t do justice to the story if we don’t include those who see it differently.
Kutchins: The level of passion felt about this case was also unprecedented. That’s part of the reason we’re interested in talking about it. What is it about this moment in time? I don’t know why it hit in the way it did, but it did, and that bears looking at.
Q: Who speaks to Scott on the phone?
“He called from San Quentin”
Marks: It’s Janey (Peterson, his sister-in-law) talking to him. He called from San Quentin (Prison). Janey is someone he trusts. It was all worked out in advance. It seemed the best way to get what we needed.
Q: Did prison officials know?
Kutchins: For phone calls he makes to family members, that’s something he has the right to do.
Q: And what did he say?
Kutchins: You’ll have to tune in!
Q: How did you decide on the title, “The Murder of Laci Peterson?”
Marks: We had a lengthy discussion about that. We wanted to convey a new look at this case with a new set of facts. It’s not a focus on what people normally think of as the Scott Peterson case.
Q: So, it wasn’t to honor the victim?
Marks: We all feel, and it only grew over time, that Laci was kind of missing in this story. We attempt to honor that throughout the series, tried to get as much in as we could about her.
Q: Why the focus on reporters?
This story, at this particular point in time, ushered in a whole new era of reporting.
Po Kutchins, BQE Films executive producer
Kutchins: This story, at this particular point in time, ushered in a whole new era of reporting.
“We examine and interrogate the media”
Marks: We attempted to show, with the greatest scope possible, all of the components that made up this case. The media is a component piece – a big one – and played a role in how everything was perceived publicly. We examine and interrogate the media as part of our exploration.
Q: Is this a reboot of `Trial by Fury?’ (A full-length documentary co-written by Kutchins which premiered at a film festival last year but was never publicly released.)
Kutchins: No. This is a totally separate project, completely separate.
Marks: There is no overlap. I can tell you, that was a key for me from the beginning. We started from scratch.
Q: Is this an exoneration project?
Kutchins: Absolutely not. I wouldn’t do that. This is a project I dove deep into because it’s a fascinating case. This kind of level 360 has never been done.
Q: Any thoughts on your time spent in Modesto?
Marks: We were treated very well by the people of Modesto. We were in the neighborhoods time and time again and people were kind to us, and helpful. We came away with a great feeling about Modesto.
Kutchins: We’re aware that (our camera crews) stir things up, so we try to tread lightly and to be respectful. It did strike all of us that the reception was quite lovely.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390