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Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2004 / 4 Teves, 5765

James Lileks

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Why Scott Peterson deserves to live | You're not a bad person for wanting Scott Peterson to get the needle. But you're not a better person, either. It depends.

Perhaps you're above it all. If you want to appear sober and serious, it's simple: Declare your disinterest in the case. The smart set will agree, and roll their eyes at the amount of ink and photons devoted to this sordid story. Groundling fare. Who cares? It's a diversion from the Real Issues.

Of course, any news show that does not devote 90 minutes a day to your favorite cause is ignoring the Real Issues. All the attention paid to the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn child could have been spent forcing the Oprah set to learn about Marc Rich and Oil-for-Food/Palestinian elections/Bernard Kerik's priapic misadventures or other items of great importance.

But let's posit the unpopular opposite: If you're not intrigued by the case, there's something wrong with you.

Yes, too much time has been spent on it. But no one strapped you in a chair, pried your eyes open, lashed your hands to the armrest and made you watch the daily talking heads. Submersion in the details of the case was voluntary.

If you're the sort who willingly watches cable talk that spends two hours speculating whether juror number two's scowl was due to displeasure with the prosecution or bad gas from a pastrami sandwich, this case helped to fill whatever aching void exists in your life. Better this than watching the neighbors through a telescope.

But just because some cared too much doesn't mean there's nothing here to care about.

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Every era has a famous murder in which all the dark drains of the heart intersect; this is just the latest version. The number of men who murder their pregnant wives on Christmas Eve, construct an elaborate alibi, then appear on TV, jaw set with grim concern, to lead the "search" for a missing spouse — well, it's a rather small sample.

This is not the "dark side of the American Dream," that favorite term of documentaries and true-crime stories. The day men like Scott Peterson get their own reality shows and the nation tunes in to find who they dispatched this week — well, then we can talk about whether the case reveals a society in decline. Perhaps the bright side of the American Dream is as simple as knowing that the guilty are punished?

Perhaps the case matters because the issues are so bald, so obvious. First: If Laci Peterson's unborn son was a victim, then what of other unborn children not afforded the balm of sympathetic publicity? Discuss. Second: If a guy who kills his pregnant wife on Christmas Eve doesn't deserve the needle, who does? How could people who oppose the death penalty want this cocky monster to live out his life, enjoying everything he took from his wife and child? Why, Clarence Darrow himself might be tempted to give the man to the mob and let them fix this now with a stout rope and a high lamppost.

Granted, there's something to be said for retribution. But you could make the case that the crime is so great that he does not deserve quick release from its consequences. If you truly want retribution, well, let him spend 60 years contemplating hell before he gets sent down to his custom-fitted sulfur pit. (With extra biting scorpions.)

You could say that the death penalty is too easy. Too quick. It spares him the hard work. From now on he will be concerned with the thoughts of his own demise, and his end will be as selfish as his life. Why rush? Let him sit. Let him think. Let him spend a decade or two avoiding his crime until it infests his dreams to the point where he prefers the needle to another ration of sleep.

And if he never faces up to what he's done? Then he's spent half a century staring at a concrete wall, after which he dies — alone, unloved, forgotten.

There's life in prison, and then there's execution. Scott Peterson, unfortunately, gets the merciful option.

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, James Lileks