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Adrienne Lawrence

Legal analyst, law professor & award-winning author

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Scott Peterson deserves his life sentence

Feb 7

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The Innocence Project is a legal defense organization that assists individuals believed to have been victims of wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Its stated mission “to free the innocent” is a reminder of the many Americans who continue to serve sentences for crimes they might not have committed. One of their clients is a man named Scott Peterson, who received a life sentence in 2004 for the murder of his pregnant wife and unborn son.

Straight Arrow News contributor Adrienne Lawrence understands the importance of groups like the Innocence Project but warns against choosing to defend individuals likely guilty of the crimes for which they have been convicted. Lawrence agrees with the judge that Peterson is guilty of murder and asks whether defending such individuals actually advances the goal of freeing the innocent or, instead, impedes that effort.

Studies estimate that between four to six percent of people incarcerated in prisons are actually innocent. And when it comes to Scott Peterson’s case, which the Innocence Project just took up, innocence is the furthest thing from my mind.

You remember Scott Peterson, right? The Northern California man who was convicted in 2004 of killing his pregnant wife Laci, following mounds of damning evidence, including that he was having an affair with a woman who he led to believe that he was single, while he also secretly bought a boat and claimed to be fishing that day that Laci went missing, only for her body to wash up in the same area that he was purportedly fishing, and for him to be arrested just days later right above the Mexican border, carrying nearly $15,000 in cash, his brother’s license, and camping gear, while sporting a newly-dyed blonde hair cut and goatee. Yeah.

Scott Peterson’s conviction appears to be on par to me and to many. Now I fully appreciate that the Innocence Project is in the business of remedying past misuses of forensic and other scientific evidence in the courtroom. They’ve gotten convictions reversed for hundreds of innocent people across the country, releasing them from a life of wrongful incarceration. I also happen to understand that Peterson had multiple appeals, and when his death penalty conviction was overturned in 2020 by the California Supreme Court, it was in large part because the trial judge made errors in jury selection during the penalty phase of his trial. There were no notable issues about the guilt phase, probably because the evidence was insurmountable. So Peterson shouldn’t have gotten the death penalty, no, but he rightfully earned that life sentence that he happens to be serving now. So why invest donated resources that are scarce into reviewing his case, without some evidence of a wrongful conviction?

The U.S. criminal justice system often fails to render justice. So when nationally renowned exoneration organizations like the Innocence Project take up a case, you’d expect that the individual’s guilt is in question, right? That there was some reasonable doubt.

 

When it comes to a high-profile case, the Innocence Project in Los Angeles just took up one, and the only doubt I have now is in the legitimacy of the organization itself. And given that these organizations tend to be the last bastion of hope for many people wrongfully convicted, most of whom look like me, I’d hope that the Innocence Project realizes that its loss of legitimacy means its loss of donations, resources and support, and society’s most marginalized will lose out the most.

 

Studies estimate that between four to six percent of people incarcerated in prisons are actually innocent. And when it comes to Scott Peterson’s case, which the Innocence Project just took up, innocence is the furthest thing from my mind. You remember Scott Peterson, right? The Northern California man who was convicted in 2004 of killing his pregnant wife Laci, following mounds of damning evidence, including that he was having an affair with a woman who he led to believe that he was single, while he also secretly bought a boat and claimed to be fishing that day that Laci went missing, only for her body to wash up in the same area that he was purportedly fishing, and for him to be arrested just days later right above the Mexican border, carrying nearly $15,000 in cash, his brother’s license, and camping gear, while sporting a newly-dyed blonde hair cut and goatee. Yeah.

 

Scott Peterson’s conviction appears to be on par to me and to many. Now I fully appreciate that the Innocence Project is in the business of remedying past misuses of forensic and other scientific evidence in the courtroom. They’ve gotten convictions reversed for hundreds of innocent people across the country, releasing them from a life of wrongful incarceration. I also happen to understand that Peterson had multiple appeals, and when his death penalty conviction was overturned in 2020 by the California Supreme Court, it was in large part because the trial judge made errors in jury selection during the penalty phase of his trial. There were no notable issues about the guilt phase, probably because the evidence was insurmountable. So Peterson shouldn’t have gotten the death penalty, no, but he rightfully earned that life sentence that he happens to be serving now. So why invest donated resources that are scarce into reviewing his case, without some evidence of a wrongful conviction?

 

Now, while the Innocence Project need not explain its reasoning for working on Peterson’s case, and believe me, it has refused to do so, I really hope it is thinking about how important its role is in society when it comes to releasing those who are wrongfully convicted, particularly Black people. Innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes like murder than innocent White people. Folks who look like me are 13% of the U.S. population, 40% of the prison population, and 60% of all DNA exonerations. It’s the most marginalized who are in need of the good works of the Innocence Project and other nonprofit organizations like it. Because between disparate sentencing and many wrongful convictions, brokenness isn’t a bug of the system, but a feature. That’s why we rely on organizations to invest resources into challenging those wrongful convictions to root out injustice and set innocent people free. While I wish that responsibility did not fall on their shoulders as there are nonprofits and justice reform advocates in our reality it does, and if their legitimacy dies, so does hope for many of us. So for the sake of the wrongfully convicted and society’s most marginalized, perhaps the Innocence Project can give some greater thought to its game plan moving forward.

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