The Other Big Vote: Scott Peterson Case, ‘A Niagara of Lies’

At last, a decision is near. As I write this, the crucial vote has yet to take place. But it’s close, and after what seems like years of spin, lies and videotape we may at last have a result: The Scott Peterson case is about to go to the jury.

Like everyone, I’ve been wrapped up in that Presidential thing (also not resolved as I write), and it has succeeded in distracting us from the trial of Scott for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci.

Yes, I know the electoral vote will probably have greater world-historical consequences-in the short term. But world-historical developments come down to-derive from-the nature of human nature. And the merit of certain tabloid cases is that they lift the mask, give us a glimpse of some of the darker aspects of the human nature upon which world-historical developments are founded.

In the past, to support this contention, I’ve referenced The Federalist Papers , with their recurrent concern about the effect “the passions” might have upon the body politic. The Founding Fathers argued that constitutional checks and balances were necessary to keep the inflammable passions of the populace in check. Tabloid cases- some tabloid cases-are a window onto the passions, what happens when they’re inflamed, what happens when they rage unchecked. The way they leave their mark on the human body might tell us about the danger of inflamed passions on the body politic.

I’ve referenced the tabloid heart of much great literature: the adultery/suicide love triangle in Anna Karenina , rape and revenge in The Iliad , a love-triangle murder in The Great Gatsby .

That tabloid cases can have larger implications is something I first discovered when I was writing about the double suicide of identical-twin gynecologists in their Upper East Side apartment (the case that became the basis of David Cronenberg’s film Dead Ringers ), and from hanging out with legendary Daily News police reporter Pat Doyle, who claimed to have covered 15,000 homicides and had a connoisseur’s instinct for the ones that raised the Larger Questions about human nature, character and fate.

It led me to believe that all tabloid murders are not equal, that some-like the Scott and Laci case-deserve the attention they get. Does that mean the jury vote in the Scott and Laci case will change the world in the same way the electoral vote in the Bush and Kerry case? No, but in some ways it may be more deeply revealing than the electoral vote.

I know that certain extremely serious and self-righteous types in the journalism world feel there is nothing to be learned from so-called “sensationalist” tabloid stories. And I also know that many such critics fail to make an elementary distinction between the fake sensationalism of celebrity journalism and the truly sensational nature of certain tabloid crimes-of-passion stories-the distinction embodied in today’s media in the differing focus of People magazine and Us Weekly , for instance.

A Brief Digression on the Decline of Us

Have you seen what’s become of Us ? In a way, its success tells you a lot about what’s become of us . I’m not saying Us was ever on a par with The Partisan Review , but it used to run articles with, you know, words. Now it runs photos with captions. “Stories” like “What Stars’ Hats Say About Them,” “What the Stars Bought This Week”. An entire magazine devoted mainly to critiques of “the stars'” outfits.

Well, I guess you could say there are still “stories,” in the sense that there are photos with extended captions, like the hard-hitting cover story in the Nov. 8 issue, which features a photo of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner with the burning question “ARE THEY ENGAGED?”

Please, please, pick up a copy of Us and tell me it is not the end of words as we know it. Us now makes The National Enquirer , The Globe and the Star seem deeply thoughtful. Us gives tabloids a bad name; Us gives sensationalism a bad name. (Because it’s such a parody of what is genuinely sensational.) Us gives names a bad name. I tend to discount apocalyptic warnings of the end of civilization, but Us -the undeniable success of Us ( Advertising Age named it “Magazine of the Year”!), the fact that millions of people pay $3.29 to see “Exclusive!” Us photos of Star Jones’ “Bridal Shower Showdown!” and features on “Celebrity Kid-spotting”-may be a sign that human evolution itself has come to a screeching halt and has gone into reverse.

Compare this with People ‘s completely fascinating Scott Peterson trial special issue: “TRAPPED BY HIS LIES”. People is still smart enough to realize that in Scott they have a great American character, a great American villain, a story that rises to the level of Dreiser’s great novel of tabloid crime (and tabloid trial), An American Tragedy .

(Troubling sign of the Us plague: People didn’t give the “TRAPPED BY HIS LIES” story the entire cover: They devoted a vertical column on the right side of the cover to Us -type cameos (“Kevin Costner: His Lavish Wedding”. Come on , People ! Don’t give in to the Dark Side so easily! Or is it too late, is this a sign of the Us -ification of All? Are we seeing the Gresham’s Law of tabloidism: Bad trash drives out good trash?).

The Tabloid Landscape

Anyway, while you were paying attention to the election, I was paying attention to the election, too-but in addition to working on my next book, I was paying attention to the tabs, and I feel a mission to let you know what you may have missed if you’ve been single-mindedly focused on Bush vs. Kerry. Needless to say, the Scott Peterson case takes center stage nationally, and I’ll get to that. But I just came back with the morning papers, and the front-page Post headline today contains, stacked one on the other, the three key tabloid elements compressed into a single headline:

RICH

LOVER

SLAY.

The subhead- Hunted down by stock exec -was elaborated upon by this front-page lede: “A disgraced Smith Barney exec-furious that his wealthy girlfriend, Elizabeth Lochtefeld (right), dumped him-hunted her down and stabbed her to death at her hiding place on Nantucket Island, officials said yesterday. Local police said John Kerry, who has a vacation home on the island, may be called in for questioning.”

Just kidding about that last sentence. That would be a story. But this still looks like a promising one. It has the special feature, the one telling detail that defines the exceptional tabloid-murder stories, the small weird detail (SWD) that in tab lit marks the alleged killer as capable of something . After recounting the way the suspect tracked down his rich but apparently reluctant girlfriend, the story ends with this SWD:

“He also was an oddball,” someone on the Post ‘s three-person byline team tells us. The super of his building in Manhattan recalled “how Toolan asked him to remove the refrigerator from his apartment. ‘He told me he doesn’t drink cold things,’ the super said.”

Doesn’t drink cold things ! You can go a lot of different ways with the implications of that SWD. Like what was in that refrigerator? Why wouldn’t he drink “cold things,” if in fact this aversion wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment cover-up of the real reason for disposing of that refrigerator. Not that I believe it was! But SWD’s do get you thinking. Isn’t it true, in a way, that this is a story (if in fact he’s found guilty) of a hot-blooded crime committed by a cold thing?

This was for some reason an extraordinary week for sensational slayings in the Post. The very next day we had “KINKY WACKO KILLED ROOMIE.” A story which opens with the probably hard-to-surpass lede: “A Brooklyn cross dresser with a penchant for bizarre porn, religious artifacts and Vietnam War memorabilia was charged with beating his elderly roommate to death after an argument over the rent, officials said yesterday.” SWD/sign of the Apocalypse: Inside the suspect’s bedroom, “cops found walls plastered with pornographic pictures and portraits of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitch sect leader,” still believed by some of his followers 10 years after his death, to be the Messiah.

This may not be a big story, but it suggests, doesn’t it, that Pre-election Tension Syndrome was causing the more vulnerable “wackos” among us to crack.

Meanwhile, there’s another tabloid story approaching fruition: the Pelosi murder case. I have a special interest in this, since it’s a Long Island murder case-and as someone who grew up in the Guyland, I have long been an aficionado of Guyland tabloid slayings. (See the piece I did in The Times Magazine , “The Devil in Long Island,” reprinted along with “Dead Ringers” in my recent collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune .)

In this case, the headline in the Post the same day as RICH/LOVER/SLAY is really vintage Guyland: ” ‘Killer’ Danny wanted Bronco-Sex Alibi: Ex. “

I have to admit, it’s not easy to decipher all the elements compressed into this complex headline, even for those following the case closely.

Of course, the presence of a Bronco is always a plus in any post-O.J. tabloid story. As is the ambiguity over “Bronco-sex,” which flirts, on first look, with implications of bestiality, but turns out to involve-as with all good Guyland slaying cases-a car.

If you’ve been following the case, you know that Danny Pelosi is on trial in Riverhead, out in Suffolk County, for allegedly murdering wealthy Ted Ammon, supposedly while having an affair with Ammon’s estranged wife Generosa, in hopes of getting more of Ammon’s money by killing him than through a divorce settlement. RICH/SPOUSE/SLAY, in other words. You say generic; I say mythic.

Today we learn that “Danny Pelosi admitted he beat a cowering Ted Ammon to death and asked his girlfriend [not Ammon’s wife-a different girlfriend] to cover it up by telling police they were having sex in his Bronco the night of the murder, his tearful ex-lover testified yesterday …. “

The girlfriend-now ex -girlfriend, apparently, since a woman identified as Mr. Pelosi’s current girlfriend (and mother of their newborn child) appeared in court to support him-testified that she went along with the alibi because “Generosa [who the ex-girlfriend claimed was in on the plot, according to what Mr. Pelosi told her] was trying to frame him.”

Follow that? What leads me to dwell on this story is that it contains an almost-too-good-to-be-true gem of Tabloid Wisdom (TW). When the girlfriend asked Pelosi “why he killed Ammon, she claimed her wild-eyed boyfriend thumped his chest and told her, ‘Because I have a monster inside me!'”

Ah, yes-the Monster Inside (MI). This is the TW version of Original Sin. Human beings-male human beings, at least-are chest-thumping killer apes. Monsters inside.

Indeed, the Post ‘s follow-up story on the Nantucket RICH/LOVER/SLAY case offered a choice MI moment. In a story headlined “HE’S A PSYCHO”: Chilling words of doomed rich gal , the Post calls Toolan “a real-life Jekyll and Hyde whose glossy exterior masked a simmering rage.” (The Post has now called the transvestite-messiah-and-porn suspect a “Jekyll and Heidi.”)

Will Scott Walk Free?

The use of the word “psycho” is another instance wherein tabloid stories raise questions about the nature of human nature. “He’s a psycho”-the words of the poor murdered woman to someone in Nantucket shortly before she died-raise the perennial question of whether we should call those who commit such crimes “psychotic,” with the implication that they had no control over their behavior and thus, by implication, no moral responsibility, because of their psychological “disorder” or “dysfunction” of some sort. Does murder by necessity define one as psycho? Or can it be a deliberate, knowing-thus evil-“cold thing”?

Some monsters are more subtle-and more outrageous-than others. None more smooth than Scott Peterson (a “cold thing” personified), who may well be about to get away with murder despite the pitifully lame clumsiness of his lies.

This is what one learns from People ‘s “TRAPPED BY HIS LIES” special feature, which spotlights Scott’s [Six] Most Damning Lies .

Of course, you know the basic story by now: Scott-a dead ringer for Ben Affleck, my friend Virginia believes-claimed he last saw Laci when she went out to walk the dog the day before Christmas. After Laci “disappeared,” Scott became a national celebrity for his heart-rending search for his eight-months-pregnant wife-the candlelight vigils, the posters he pasted on trees, the wet-eyed interview with Diane Sawyer pleading for the nation’s help and sympathy. And then, of course, the inevitable: A massage therapist girlfriend turns up (the alluring Amber Frey), the lies surface: to Laci, to the cops, to the family of Laci. This is what has made the Scott Peterson trial so fascinating: the picture that emerges of Scott as the consummate cold-blooded liar.

This doesn’t make him guilty of murder. But the trial introduced hours and hours of phone tapes of Scott telling lie after lie after lie-a torrent, a Niagara, of lies. One of the phone taps played by the prosecution offered a particularly piquant one, which could be described as a Three-Way Lie. He was lying to the people holding the candlelight vigil for Laci, the ones deluded into believing that she was still alive and that Scott was distraught over her mysterious disappearance. Then he put in a call to Amber and lied to her, claiming that he was in Paris, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower (where else?), whose glories he exclaimed over while telling her that he was there on a business trip. Meanwhile, he was lying to the investigators he was trying to follow, to shadow his shadowers. Triple play, Scott!

But here’s the thing: I think he’s going to get away with it. Not the lying; that’s self-evident. I think he’s going to get off on the murder charge. The prosecution has amply proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Scott’s a total creep, but that’s not a felony offense. The problem is, they presented precious little physical evidence that tied him directly to the crime and the disposal of the body.

And yet the case has already left its mark on a controversial issue in American jurisprudence -and an issue in the election (for those still unconvinced of its “redeeming social value”). “Laci’s Law” now mandates that the murder of a pregnant woman and her fetus is the murder of two people-which, of course, has implications for the abortion debate.

But I think there are even more questions about to be opened up by the Scott Peterson jury vote. I can’t be absolutely certain that, as The Globe had it on a recent cover, “SCOTT WILL WALK FREE.” I think the jury must know in their hearts and minds that he did it; I think they will be tempted to vote for conviction despite the fact that (as I read it) the physical evidence presented doesn’t link him directly to the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Some of the jurors will vote for conviction, but I think that some will hold to the presumption of innocence. The locus of the question of the nature of human nature raised by the Scott and Laci case will now shift from the mind of Scott to the mind(s) of the jury. I don’t think they’ll vote “not guilty”; I don’t think he’ll walk free right away . But I do think that, with what we’ve seen of the prosecution’s case, there will be a hung jury, then a retrial and another hung jury, until eventually Scott will walk free.

I could be wrong, but in a peculiar way it may be an affirmation of human nature: the willingness to let a killer off on behalf of an abstract principle of justice: the belief that the presumption of innocence should be preserved so that, in the future, the innocent are less likely to be locked up.

The big question: When Scott walks free, will Us do a feature on his wardrobe?