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It was Friday night when I got the call from Fox News Channel. “Hi Jonna! Listen, it’s 8:34 in the evening, and I’m sure you heard by now that, at 8:29, Scott Peterson was arrested for the murder of his missing wife, Laci. Can you be in studio tomorrow morning to discuss the case at, say, 10 . . . and then every five minutes thereafter until, I dunno, June, maybe? Call me back. Bye.” Less than 12 hours later, running late and lamenting whether to wear “TV blue” or “strange fruit pink,” the phone rang again. This time, it was my oldest and dearest friend from high school. She left a message. “I just heard the news about that guy in California who killed his pregnant wife, and wanted to know whether you think this no-good, cheating, dirty, rotten baby killer is guilty. Call me back. Bye.” It wasn’t long after when the driver beeped the horn out front, signaling my spouse to bid me adieu. This is a typically hasty routine in which my husband misses my lips by a mile, but manages to land the Glaceau water bottle in my palm as securely as a relay team’s baton. This time, however, he hesitated. “Hey, you’d better get ready for a nasty on-air beating because this arrogant s.o.b. is guilllllll-teeeeeee. Have a good show!” I slumped into the back seat, and, after about a mile, pulled the morning paper out from under my posterior. There was Scott Peterson’s mug shot juxtaposed against a beautiful photo of his beautiful wife displaying her beautifully pregnant belly. Below that was a bird’s-eye view of detectives fishing a blue body bag from the San Francisco Bay. One for Laci Peterson. Another for her unborn son, Connor. This was going to be a tough day, and I could see I needed a pre-show morale boost. I quickly dialed the one person in the world I can always count on to tell me I’m right, even when I know I’m wrong. Unfortunately, my dad answered the phone first. “You’re actually going to defend this guy? Heh! They ought to fry him. That no good piece of . . . Hold on. I’ll get your mother.” After a pleasantly familiar “Good morning, sweetheart!” Mom was quick to come to the aid of Laci’s own mother.”What an awful thing to do to a mother-in-law. That poor woman.I hope she gets to flip the switch herself. I sure wouldn’t want to be you today!I’ll be watching.Have a great show!” Never before had the back seat of a 2003 Lincoln Town Car been such a cold and scary place. I assumed a fetal position and asked the driver to slow down. I needed time to think. Is Scott Peterson innocent until proven guilty? Or is he guilty until proven innocent? What’s the difference? Plenty. One is the very cornerstone of our justice system which assures the criminally accused a fair trial, while the other is a frightening mutant imposter with far-reaching ramifications. Already, prosecutors in the case have been quite vocal. Yet, prosecutors, like all lawyers, are bound by a code of ethics. Publicly, prosecutors are supposed to pretend, at least, that it is indeed their job to prove a defendant guilty. Why then were few offended when Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the highest ranking prosecuting attorney in the entire state, grabbed a microphone on the day of Scott Peterson’s arrest and declared the case a “slam dunk”? Call me crazy, but a potential juror — or two — could have been within ear shot. Too bad there is no chemical which conclusively tests for taint in the jury pool. And how about the Modesto police? I can understand the authorities treating Scott as a suspect initially because, let’s face it, the husband is always a suspect. But just because he is one logical subject of an investigation shouldn’t make him the sole subject of an investigation. So far, police have focused only on those facts — however few — which support the theory that Scott Peterson killed his wife and unborn son. In so doing, they have ignored more than 8,000 phone tips which poured in since Laci disappeared Christmas Eve. Eight thousand callers and, according to police, not one of them is worth calling back? How can that be? As for the public’s opinion, one might think, so what? Why not let the masses boo and hiss the defendant long before the verdict is in? For that matter, why not also convict any defense attorney who dares to presume his client’s innocence?Should we lock up any lawyer who has the gall to insist his client be provided with necessary evidence, or the audacity to question police who turn a blind eye to facts which may favor an accused, or the nerve simply to place a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a frightened man when no one else will? Losing the Laci Petersons of the world to senseless criminal acts makes emotions run high. The more atrocious the crime, the more we want to convict someone, anyone, when what we should be chiefly concerned with is convicting the right one — no matter how long or difficult the task may be. If we continue to chip away at our most basic legal tenet — that an accused is innocent until proven guilty — what’s next? Might “eenie, meenie, minie, mo” replace due process as we know it? Tag, you’re guilty. Jonna M. Spilbor is a New York-based criminal defense lawyer, columnist and guest commentator on Court TV.

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