"The first Mother's Day, I laid on the floor and cried most of the day," the sobbing mother of Laci Peterson said last week. "She wanted to be a mother."
Sharon Rocha, testifying during the penalty phase of her son-in-law's murder trial, also recalled attending her daughter's funeral. "I knew she was in the casket," she said. "I knew her baby was in there. I knew she didn't have arms to hold him." (When Laci's body was found along the Richmond, Calif., shoreline, it was without head or forearms.)
(Al Golub Pool Photo)
This is the hearing to determine whether Scott Peterson, already convicted of murder by another jury, will serve life or be given the death penalty. Listening to Rocha's gut-wrenching testimony made the choice -- in favor of death -- seem absurdly easy.
So why on Earth am I a bit ambivalent about the process?
Naturally one wants to be sure that the right person was convicted of this awful crime. In the absence of either witnesses or a confession, there's always the possibility that Peterson is nothing worse than a contemptible cad.
But my misgivings run in another direction as well: What role should the grief and visceral rage of Laci's parents play in the sentencing of her husband?
Reporters at the hearing say that Rocha wasn't so much testifying as confronting her daughter's killer. Her remarks were directed at him, as when she faced him and shouted: "Laci always had motion sickness . . . and you knew that, and you put her in the bay. You knew she'd be sick for the rest of eternity and you did that to her anyway."
Well, you say, weren't her parents victims, too? No, not in any legal sense of the word. Laci and her unborn child were the victims. The case against the husband wasn't called Rocha Family v. Peterson. It was called The People of the State of California v. Scott Lee Peterson. The Rochas, distraught loved ones and grieving friends are, under the law, reduced to the role of mere witnesses. Theoretically, the purpose of their testimony is to give the jury information regarding the character of the convicted Scott and the impact of his crime. It is not to avenge their loss.
My mind goes back to the 1988 presidential campaign debate in which CNN's Bernard Shaw asked the anti-death-penalty Michael Dukakis whether, "if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered," he would change his mind and "favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer."
Dukakis thought he had been trapped into two awful choices: to come off as inhumanly cold or confess inconsistency. He chose the former.
There was, however, a third choice. He might have said that the sort of scenario laid out by Shaw is the very reason we leave these matters to trained judges and strangers, and not to the emotions of bereft families. It is the difference, he might have said, between a calm deliberation and an angry mob. (And who has never, ever wished an outraged public would substitute its will for that of a court overly bound by crippling technicalities?)
The problem is that while we don't want a system with the mindlessness of a mob, neither do we want one with the heartlessness of a law-school text.
That, very likely, is why California and other jurisdictions make at least a little room for the expression of pure, unbridled emotion. Maybe the introduction into a courtroom of Sharon Rocha's palpable despair will give the rest of us a little more faith in the system.
Maybe that's what it's meant to do.