Is Scott Peterson Innocent? Part Two

Police Tunnel Vision

Posted Dec 15, 2018

This is part two of a three-part series of articles in which I address the current state of the 2004 conviction of Scott Peterson, now on death row in California for the murder of his pregnant wife Laci and unborn son Connor.  Scott is currently attempting to obtain a new trial based on newly discovered evidence that his lawyers claim points to his innocence. 

I, of course, do not know whether or not Scott is innocent or guilty.  But I can say that, looking back 15 years later, problems in the case are now visible that we often see in wrongful conviction cases.

In part one, I addressed the undue weight given to demeanor evidence in Scott’s case, based on current understandings of psychology and what we now know from noted wrongful conviction cases.  In this article, I discuss how initial hunches of this kind can lead to tunnel vision in law enforcement.  Tunnel vision is something all humans suffer from at different times, and as I explain in my book, Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions, it’s a human psychological phenomenon that traces back to how we evolved.  When tunnel vision kicks in, it causes us to make a bad decision at work, or to stay in relationships we should break off.  It affects everyday life for us in a variety of ways that most often are mundane.  But when police get tunnel vision, it can lead to disastrous results.

Indeed, tunnel vision often causes well-intentioned officers to focus too much on one suspect, and therefore they discount or dismiss evidence that would point to other potential perpetrators.  Because they’re so sure they have the right guy, it causes them to cut corners, ignore contradictory evidence, and to try to fit a square peg into a round hole in order to confirm their initial suspicions.  If you want to know more, take five minutes to watch the video below of Jim Trainum, a former homicide detective in Washington, D.C., talk about how tunnel vision can negatively impact criminal investigations. 

In the case of my client Clarence Elkins, who was exonerated and freed after he spent more than seven years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, detectives very quickly developed a theory that Clarence was responsible for the rape and murder of his mother-in-law, as well as the rape of his six-year-old niece. They charged Clarence with murder, even though his wife, who was the daughter of the woman Clarence was alleged to have murdered, screamed that she was at home with him when the crime occurred.

Piece after piece of evidence uncovered during the subsequent investigation pointed to Clarence’s innocence.  But the police either ignored this contradictory evidence or twisted it to fit their theory, believing they already had the bad guy in custody. They even characterized Clarence’s wife, whose own mother had been murdered and whose niece had been brutally attacked, as a “stand by your man” country woman who would rather protect a murderous husband than her own mother and niece. When she testified in Clarence’s defense, the prosecution conveyed this image of her to the jury, suggesting that she should not be believed.  The jury bought it.

The most compelling evidence of Clarence’s innocence came from the gruesome crime scene, which had bloody palm prints, hairs, and various other evidence on the floors and walls, yet none of this forensic evidence matched Clarence.  Nonetheless, the prosecution insisted that Clarence was guilty.  They claimed that the house where the murder and rapes occurred was filthy, so all the hairs and other evidence had probably been there for months, and that Clarence somehow committed the crimes without leaving any of his DNA or fingerprints or anything else.  Based on the testimony of the surviving six-year old niece, who claimed the perpetrator was her uncle Clarence, they sought the death penalty against Clarence.  The jury convicted, but fortunately rejected the death penalty.  After Clarence served seven-and-a-half years of a life sentence, DNA testing not only exonerated Clarence but implicated Earl Mann, a violent child rapist who had been released from prison right before the attack and was living two doors down from the victims in this case.  Earl Mann was right in front of the investigators’ noses, and they were even looking at him at the time for other violent offenses.

How did police tunnel vision come into play in the Clarence Elkins case?  Their focus on Clarence was so intense that it excluded any other possibilities from being considered, even other possibilities that should have been obvious. Police even picked up Earl Mann for a violent crime before Clarence’s trial, and Mann said something to the effect of “Why aren’t you arresting me for the murder of Judy Johnson?” Judy Johnson was Clarence’s mother-in-law. But the police were so convinced that their theory of the case was correct that they didn’t follow up on this or even disclose this information to Clarence’s defense prior to trial.

In Scott Peterson’s case, lead Detective Al Brocchini stated that he had a “feeling” about Scott the first day, and he admitted during cross-examination that detectives singled Scott out as the prime suspect early in the case, and they therefore were specifically searching for any evidence that would link him to Laci’s disappearance and possible murder. This is the type of premature selective focus and lack of open-minded objectivity that often results in disastrous consequences in wrongful conviction cases. The prosecution’s theory was that Scott killed Laci in their home sometime between late Dec. 23 to early morning Dec. 24, 2002, put her body in his truck, drove to the warehouse where his boat was and did some work for a while, transferred her body to his boat, weighted her down with homemade anchors then drove to Berkeley Marina where he dumped her body in the water.

Scott consistently maintained that he went fishing on the morning of Dec. 24, and that his wife was home when he left, getting ready to take the dog for a walk and do some holiday shopping.  When he returned later that afternoon, she was gone, and he commenced a search.

  Wikipedia Commons
Scott Peterson Prison Picture
Source: source: Wikipedia Commons

Here are some of the signs of tunnel vision that one can now see in Scott’s case, looking back 15 years later:

(1) Scott said that on the morning of Dec. 24, he and Laci watched the Martha Stewart show together before he left to go fishing.  He remembered a segment with meringue in that episode, but Detective Brocchini wrote in his report that there was no mention of meringue on the show that date, furthering the idea that Scott was being deceptive and hiding the truth about Laci’s disappearance. In fact, on Dec. 24, 2002, at 9:48 a.m., Martha Stewart did discuss meringue on her show. Nonetheless, this false information supposedly demonstrating Scott’s lies was communicated to other detectives investigating the case, it was used in an affidavit seeking a wiretap on Scott’s phones, and the prosecutor specifically told the jury in opening statements that “on the 24th Martha Stewart didn’t have a segment with meringue.” Additional misinformation that may have exacerbated the tunnel vision of law enforcement included false reports that upon the initial search, the “house smelled of bleach,” as if Scott had just cleaned up a murder scene, and that Scott was a suspect in the disappearance of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart years before.  It turned out that none of these points was true, but they undoubtedly had an effect on people’s perceptions of Scott’s guilt, including those responsible for investigating Laci’s disappearance in an objective, open-minded way.

Scott Peterson's family upon request
Laci and Scott
Source: Scott Peterson's family upon request

(2) The prosecution continually emphasized that Scott had purchased the boat without telling anyone, supposedly as part of his secretive plot to kill Laci and dispose of her body.  In their closing argument, the prosecution said, “Nobody knew about it (the boat). No one -- all the friends, family, the Peterson family, Rochas (Laci’s famly) -- nobody knew the defendant had bought a boat.  So you’ve got this secret purchase going on.” However, Scott, who fished as a hobby, withdrew the $1,400 to purchase the boat from his joint checking account with Laci, and he provided accurate information – including his name and address – to the seller who filed the paperwork with the DMV on Dec. 9, 2002.  Additionally, Peggy O’Donnell and Rosemary Ruiz, who worked in the same warehouse complex as Scott, had both seen Laci at Scott’s warehouse on Dec. 23.  The boat was prominent sitting right there in plain sight. Detective Brocchini knew that Laci had been at the warehouse and would have seen Scott’s boat, but he admitted under oath that he removed this information from his report. Clearly he did so because it didn’t fit with the prosecution’s assumptions of how Scott committed this crime.

(3) Investigators were so committed to the idea that Scott had harmed Laci that they failed to consider conflicting evidence, and they didn’t seriously pursue the possible connection between Laci’s disappearance and the burglary of the house across the street from the Petersons at the time Laci disappeared.  Several witnesses saw someone fitting Laci’s description (pretty, pregnant or large lady with dark hair walking a golden retriever) after Scott had left to go to the marina the morning of Dec. 24, including neighbors, a bread truck driver and strangers who called their sighting into the tip line.  More than ten witnesses reported seeing someone fitting Laci’s description, down to the breed of dog.  If these witnesses were correct that Laci was alive and walking the dog after Scott left to go fishing, then Scott is innocent and someone else committed the crime. 

However, as another example of tunnel vision, Detective Craig Grogan stated that Laci sightings after Scott’s departure were “not a priority” for the Modesto police; they were dismissed out of hand as necessarily being incorrect, because the police “knew” that Laci was already dead by then.   They didn’t follow up on these tips.   In 2017, when interviewed for the A&E special The Murder of Laci Peterson, Detective Jon Buehler didn’t even remember any witnesses seeing someone fitting Laci’s description walking the dog.  He said to A&E that he doesn’t “think it occurred because it didn’t happen – she was dead by then.” It appears that he was so sure his theory was right that he did not pay attention to the conflicting information and now does not even remember all the witnesses coming forward to provide this information that the police failed to follow up on at the time.  That is what happens with tunnel vision.  You are so sure you’re right that your brain pushes aside conflicting information as inconsequential and irrelevant and then you quickly forget it.

More importantly, neighbor Diane Jackson reported a daytime burglary that occurred at the Medina home across from the Peterson home at 11:40 a.m. on Dec. 24.   The neighbors whose home was burglarized left town at 10:30 a.m. on the 24th, and returned in the afternoon of the 26th.  Steven Todd and Glenn Pearce were later arrested for this burglary.  They confessed, but claimed it occurred on Dec. 26 before the homeowners returned.  

When police were asked if the burglary could be involved in Laci’s disappearance, they told the press that the burglary occurred on Dec. 26, simply accepting without question what the burglars said.  But this doesn’t make any sense.  By the 26th, news crews were outside the Peterson house constantly, day and night, making it impossible for a strange van to pull up and commit a brazen burglary across the street -- loading items including a large safe into a van parked outside -- without being seen. 

The burglars might have had an incentive to fudge the date of the burglary -- they, of course, would not want to be implicated in the disappearance of Laci Peterson.

Thus, the police chose to believe the statements of the burglars, who had an incentive to lie, that the burglary occurred on the 26th, rather than the statement of the objective neighbor who reported that she saw the burglary occur on the 24th around the time Laci was seen walking the dog and then disappeared. This would also conflict with the fact that the street in front of the house that was burglarized was teeming with news reporters on the 26th, and no reporters or anyone else saw a burglary across the street (as if burglars would actually follow through with a planned burglary when the street in front of the house they were planning to break into was filled with cameras and reporters).

But it gets worse.  A few weeks after Laci’s disappearance (but before her body was found), Lt. Xavier Aponte, a guard at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Cal., reported a call he had monitored between inmate Shawn Tenbrink and his brother, Adam Tenbrink. During the call, Adam said his friend Steven Todd admitted Laci confronted him during his burglary of her neighbor on Dec. 24, 2002.  Lt. Aponte said he gave Modesto police a copy of this taped conversation, but they denied receiving it and no copies have been found. Whether the burglars harmed Laci or not, just their confirmation of having seen her that morning after Scott left -- as was indicated in the phone call that Lt. Aponte reported -- indicates that the state’s theory of Scott murdering her and disposing of her body must be incorrect.

Former Modesto Police Sgt. Ed Steele didn’t even remember talking to eyewitness Diane Jackson (who witnessed the burglary and reported it as having occurred on the 24th), but his signature was on the police report he took from her, stating that the burglary was on Dec. 24. As depicted on A&E, when arrested, burglar Steven Todd’s first words were: “I had nothing to do with the pregnant girl.” The detective said “I’m not here to talk to you about the pregnant girl, I want to talk to you about the burglary,” and never pursued that line of questioning. Scott’s jury never knew about this or the taped phone conversation implicating the burglars with some type of involvement with Laci.

When one of the burglars was later confronted by Scott’s defense team about Laci’s disappearance, they said he “came unglued,” starting yelling things like, “you have no evidence,” and then said he would take the Fifth and would no longer talk.

Of course, if someone abducted and killed Laci, the police solved their problem of where to dispose of her body.  The police widely publicized their theory that Scott dumped her body in the bay on the 24th instead of fishing.

Again, I do not know whether Scott Peterson is innocent or guilty.  I study tunnel vision, and my concern is that police are properly trained to combat and minimize this human problem.  Tunnel vision is visible in the Scott Peterson case, and it caused the police to ignore important evidence that should have been explored, and to even remove contradictory evidence from reports or make incorrect statements to the media and the jury.  As former Washington, D.C., Metro Police Detective Jim Trainum says in the video above, tunnel vision can create the wrongful conviction of an innocent person, but it can also make a good conviction appear weak and subject to attack years later.   If Scott is innocent, then the damage of tunnel vision in this case is clear.  But if he’s guilty, then the lack of care, and the rush to judgment, have opened up avenues for attack that would not be there if our police were better trained to play devil’s advocate, slow down, and push for objectivity in their investigations. 

In my final installment of this series, I’ll address the problems with the forensic science presented at Scott Peterson’s trial.

Reporting and writing assistance by Dr. Melissa Berry, Asst. Professor of Psychology at the University of Dayton

Find part one here.

Find part three here.