Scott Peterson: His Life Behind Bars
It has been more than a month since Scott Peterson arrived on the East Block of San Quentin’s notorious death row. But so far Peterson shows few signs of wanting to stray from his cell. When given the opportunity each day to stroll alone in a fenced area adjacent to the general exercise yard, he has declined all but two times. Soon, if Peterson wants to be outside, his only option will be to mingle with his fellow condemned, and no one will be surprised if he continues to balk. “It’s not uncommon,” says San Quentin spokesperson Vernell Crittendon of Peterson’s apparent trepidation. “Inmates want to have an adjustment period before they go out and begin interacting with others—particularly a person like Scott Peterson, who comes from the better walk of society.”
Any normal person—or hardened felon, for that matter—would likely feel on edge facing the 65 to 80 other death-row inmates in what will likely be Peterson’s “exercise group”—the coterie of cons who are allowed in the yard at the same time. There is, for instance, Edward Charles III, who in 1996 was convicted of killing his parents and his 20-year-old brother in Fullerton and sentenced to death. Not to mention Ivan Gonzales, who in 1995 tortured and murdered his 4-year-old niece in Chula Vista. Found guilty last Nov. 12 of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, Peterson, 32, is clearly the most infamous of this group, and it’s still unknown how other inmates will respond to him. But it’s safe to say that there are thousands of people who wish him the worst. “There are some people who don’t belong among normal human beings, and we need to do away with them the same way we do rabid dogs,” says Carole Carrington, a friend of Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha. Adds Carrington, who lost a daughter and granddaughter to another killer: “He’s guilty as hell and I think he ought to go there.”
Death row maybe bleak, and inmates may crumble in despair, but Peterson is actually physically safer on death row than he would have been in a general prison population, where he would not have had an individual cell and where violent gangs flourish. “By and large, death row is a very restricted environment,” says James Anderson, a former prosecutor in California’s Alameda County. “Sure, people do get assaulted there, but that’s fairly rare.” And in any case, much to the disappointment of Carrington and others, the boundlessly arrogant Peterson seems to be largely unfazed by his conditions. He has cheerfully adopted the nickname bestowed on him by some of his admiring female correspondents: Scottie-Too-Hottie. “He received it in the mail,” says Crittendon, “but he’s the one who made it known.” He also moved out of the Adjustment Center and into the East Block “much more quickly than most” says a source inside San Quentin. “Some people never get out of the Adjustment Center, but he moved from what’s called Grade B to Grade A, which has far more privileges.” In prison parlance Peterson is programming. “He’s doing what the officers are asking him to do,” says the source. “He’s not causing any problems.”
Meanwhile Peterson’s mom and dad, Jackie, 61, and Lee, 66, continue to fight to improve even the smallest detail of their son’s daily life, lobbying, for instance, for him to get the best TV available to inmates. (For the record, once assigned to their regular cell block, all inmates are allowed to purchase a television, provided that it is no larger than 13 inches and is used only to receive over-the-air broadcast channels.) The Petersons declined to comment, but one family friend says their belief in their son’s innocence remains unshaken. “From what I hear, Lee is taking it pretty hard,” says the source, who also continues to believe in Scott. “They were really upset at the verdict, but the whole family is confident the truth will come out. Scott’s keeping his spirits pretty high. He has the attitude that he didn’t do anything wrong, and he’s waiting for the day when he can come out and do his ha-ha dance and tell the world, ‘See, I didn’t do it.’ ”
Peterson has an approved list of 20 people who are allowed to meet with him for what are called “contact visits,” meaning the person or persons get locked in a monitored holding room with him for up to four hours three days a week; no touching more intimate than hand holding is permitted except for greeting and goodbye hugs and kisses. (And definitely no conjugal visits.) Prison rules forbid disclosing who is on the list, but in Peterson’s case it is known to contain lawyers and family-his parents make the 500-mile trip from San Diego about once a week-plus about four friends and a member of the clergy. (Peterson doesn’t yet have a lawyer to handle his appeal, which is likely to take years.) One of the visitors is a former member of his defense team, “a young woman who is very attractive,” says the source inside San Quentin. “She visits fairly regularly.”
Peterson is also allowed to receive unlimited amounts of mail (but no Internet access). When first brought to San Quentin, he got as many as 85 letters a week. That total soon dipped a bit, but recently, as the result of a Web site featuring comments from him that is run by a Canadian organization opposed to the death penalty (People, Aug. 15), the numbers have picked up once again.
Crittendon won’t say how many missives come from female fans, but the word in the prison, where about 25 percent of the correctional officers are women, is that Peterson has lost none of his eagerness to charm the ladies. Lance Corcoran, the vice president of the state’s correctional officers’ union, says he was touring the prison this spring with then-warden Jill Brown, who passed along a telling observation. “She said he was very reserved with male staff,” says Corcoran, “but that a light came on, if you will, around the female staffers.” Adds Crittendon: “He’s a very polite guy. He says ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you very much’ to everyone.”
The numbing indignities that are a part of prison life may eventually fray that genteel manner. Every time he leaves his cell, whether for a twice weekly shower or a visit, Peterson is strip-searched. When being moved within the facility, prisoners wear nothing more than their white boxers, T-shirts, socks and a cheap pair of canvas shoes. While in their cell, they are allowed to don their regular denim jeans and blue work shirts. Assuming that he decides someday to venture out into the exercise yard, which is permitted from 7 a.m. to noon each day, Peterson will discover a less than stimulating environment—just a basketball hoop, chin-up and sit-up bars and a single table for cards or chess.
On the upside, though, the food is “quite good,” says one source with knowledge of the prison. The hot breakfast, which like all meals on death row is taken in the cells, includes bacon and eggs and fried potatoes, while lunch is typically a sandwich and a piece of fruit in a brown bag. “Dinner,” says the source, “is anything from steak—not cooked to order, of course, but a piece of meat—to pasta.” As a death row inmate, Peterson has no prison job, though he is expected to keep his cell tidy. Failure to do so can result in a punishment known as “property control,” in which items such as TVs or CD players are taken away from the offending inmates. (Under normal circumstances, prisoners can have eight CDs and six paperbacks at any one time; an early choice of Scott’s was Roald Dahl’s sex-themed comic novel My Uncle Oswald.)
For the team who put Peterson behind bars, post-trial life has brought a host of new challenges. On July 9 lead prosecutor Rick Distaso was appointed to a judgeship in Stanislaus County Superior Court. With the retirement of county district attorney James Brazelton in July, prosecutor Birgit Fladager, who many observers believe delivered a late-inning boost to the state’s case against Peterson, announced that she would run for the post in next year’s election. “I got lots of encouragement from inside the D.A.’s office as well as outside to run,” says Fladager. “I learned so much during the course of the Peterson case about how important it is that prosecutors work closely with law enforcement. That and you have to absolutely always keep the victims in mind with everything you do.”
Meanwhile Peterson’s comfort is not an overriding concern of prison authorities. In past years officials at San Quentin ordered metal screens installed in another section of the facility, partly to block off a view of San Francisco Bay that was considered too beautiful for inmates. Still, if life on death row has gotten Peterson down, it’s not evident. “He’s a sociopath,” Crittendon believes. “As long as he’s getting all this attention, he’s going to be rather happy.”
Bill Hewitt. Vickie Bane in Denver, Johnny Dodd and Howard Breuer in Los Angeles, Frank Swertlow in San Diego and Nicole Egan in Philadelphia