Byline: Karen Breslau (With Robina Riccitiello and Bob Jackson)
Jamie Bailey came from Las Vegas. Adrienne Hensen was in from New York. Bill Winnegar drove from across town. "It just felt like the kind of news you wanted to hear with other people," explained the retired accountant, who joined the throngs in front of the courthouse in Redwood City, Calif., last Friday afternoon as word spread that the jury had reached a verdict in the Scott Peterson murder trial. As a clerk solemnly pronounced Peterson guilty of murdering his wife, Laci, and the couple's unborn son, strangers huddled around radios on the courthouse plaza exploded into cheers and tearfully embraced each other as though Boston had won the World Series all over again. "There was this huge release," says Winnegar. "I think people were worried how awful it would be if it was like O.J. and they weren't able to put him away."
This national soap opera didn't offer a cast of characters nearly as glamorous as Simpson: a philandering fertilizer salesman, his vivacious, pregnant young wife, the exquisitely named mistress. The crime happens all too often to nameless, faceless victims, who are neither white nor pretty, and don't go missing on Christmas Eve--a notoriously slow news day. The trial wasn't even televised. Yet somehow, we couldn't look away. "This became a morality play in which people could reaffirm their own good values by supporting the victims," says Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "People were holding their breath to see if the system would get it right."
Last week's guilty verdict was all the more stunning given that the jury had seemed on the brink of mutiny for days. The trouble started last Monday, when jurors were seen standing in Scott Peterson's fishing boat--which prosecutors say he used to dump Laci's body into the San Francisco Bay--and trying to shake it back and forth while it rested on a trailer in the courthouse garage. Defense attorney Mark Geragos complained bitterly that he was not allowed to show jurors a defense video of a test boat capsizing under conditions alleged by the prosecutors. He asked for a mistrial and was turned down. A day later a juror was dismissed after admitting to the judge that she had conducted her own research, rather than relying solely on the evidence presented in court. Soon after, the jury foreman, a meticulous note-taker nicknamed "doctor-lawyer" by reporters covering the trial, apparently undone by the stress of his task, asked to be removed and was replaced by yet another alternate.
Each time a juror was removed, the judge instructed the visibly exasperated panel to begin deliberating all over again. So when the third reconstituted jury reached its verdict on Friday, after only seven hours of deliberation, nearly everyone was caught flat-footed. …