December 20, 2004
Twelve people, ordinary citizens, accepted the ultimate challenge of a civilized society. They sat through five months of grueling testimony in the Scott Peterson trial in order to defend truth.
There is something immediate and real about sitting in the jury box, examining bits of concrete, clothing, and recorded phone conversations, searching for truth. When the prosecution passed the peasant maternity blouse thought to have been worn by Laci shortly before her murder, one juror burst into tears. Literally touching the truth can be painful.
The Peterson verdict makes me think back to another trial I witnessed firsthand in 2001, where Dr. John Biskind was accused of letting his patient die. Like Laci, his patient LouAnne was pregnant.
In order to prove their case against Dr. Biskind, prosecutors needed to prove the age of LouAnne’s baby. Twelve jurors focused on a description of the proper use of ultrasound to measure the widest part of the baby’s temple, slightly above the eyes. The expert witness assured them further measurements of the baby’s waist and femur could be used to confirm an estimated age.
The jury listened intently. The truth seemed to be that LouAnne’s baby had been 25 to 26 weeks old, at the age of viability, when, under ordinary circumstances the baby could have survived outside the mother’s womb. But these were not ordinary circumstances.
Scott Peterson and Dr. Biskind were both convicted by juries. Both prosecutors won their cases. Two trials, two mothers, two babies, and four deaths. But oh, the difference in truth.
You see, as tragic as his death was, at least Connor had a name. He is remembered in the hearts of people who wanted him, and he is honored by a nation who grieved when his little body was found on the shore of San Francisco Bay. Laci’s baby was a victim. And Scott will pay the price for his murder.
LouAnne’s baby was measured and counted and aged. But he…or she…was never named. Prosecutors in the Biskind trial were under a strict order from the judge not to make the trial about the baby. Just figure out how old “it” was…and then move on.
Later in the trial, when prosecutors described the death of “it”, they explained how the broken leg bone of the baby could have ripped a hole in LouAnne’s uterus as the doctor pulled it out. And the metal tool that broke the leg bone…and crushed the skull of “it”…that sharp metal tool might have cut into LouAnne and caused the uterine wound that made her bleed to death.
The Peterson trial was about two people, Laci and Connor, who each died a brutal death.
The Biskind trial was about one person, LouAnne…and “It”. LouAnne died a painful and undeserved death, and Dr. Biskind was convicted of this crime. “It” never died, because “It” was supposed to die.
When “It” was measured at the trial…her little head, her tummy, her legs and arms…she was a fully-formed picture on an ultrasound with a beating heart. But when time came to describe her death in the trial, she became a fetus…a linguistic charade that snuffed out her humanity, a life summed up by a medical examiner in three words of dispassionate science…a “Product of Conception”…or more simply said…“It.”
Is this the truth that we require of juries? Is the truth a matter of declaring what you want, even if the evidence proves otherwise? If you name him Conner, then he was killed. If she was only an “It,” then she never was…and she never died.
This week, just as Americans work to make peace with the conclusion of the Peterson trial, the brutal truth we work so hard to avoid has been savagely resurrected on the front page of national newspapers.
Another mother, Bobby Jo Stinnett, was murdered. Her fetus? Her product of conception? Her “It”? It lived.
Bobby Jo died. But because someone wanted her fetus enough to kill her for it, to take it by force from the womb, a grateful father has been reunited with his baby…Victoria Jo Stinnett.
In Kansas, another jury will eventually convene in another trial, with another long trail of evidence leading to the conviction of a murderer. And as the jury weighs the evidence of this unspeakable crime, our nation will once again be faced with a serious truth that refuses to die.
The definition of life is not fluid…changeable from one trial to the next…based on whether we wanted to receive the life…or not. Life, like truth, exists of its own volition…separate from our juries and verdicts…life is. And truth is.
No amount of evidence and testimony will ever be enough to reach truth if we close our eyes and hearts. The greatest challenge for a jury in a civilized society is not to determine truth, but to open its eyes to the truth in plain sight…and accept it.
See Archives for past editorials.
June 25, 2004: Unplanned Joy
December 10, 2004: The Best Part of Snuggling