The Peterson Case and the Importance of Class and Gender


The Los Angeles Times editorialized this morning (11/16/04) that the Laci Peterson case “garnered more airtime on the big three TV networks' morning news shows than any other story except the war in Iraq. The tabloids and all-news cable stations were all Laci, all the time.”  They noted that husbands are killing their wives at a rate of about three times a day and that homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant women.  The Times also observed that “Unlike the Simpson case, this trial resounded not because of intrigue, race or celebrity, but simplicity. Strangers looked at Laci Peterson and saw themselves, their daughters, sisters, friends … every woman ever done wrong; her husband, meanwhile, represented every smooth-talking womanizer who tried to get away with murder.”

            What is most interesting about not only this case but the editorial in the Times is that, although race is mentioned in reference to the OJ Simpson case, it is not mentioned with regard to the Peterson case.  There’s another word missing too: class.  It has been noted (but all too rarely) that there are “deserving” and “undeserving” victims when it comes to crime, including crimes of the state, as in cases of state intervention in foreign affairs resulting in thousands of deaths of innocent civilians (think of all the times our troops were sent into Third World countries to “tame the natives” all in the name of corporate profit).  When they are killed it really doesn’t seem to matter, for they are merely “heathens” and are “not like us.”  Besides, they are dying for a “greater good,” namely, the “spread of democracy.” 

But that is another story.  The same general principle applies here.  It is interesting to note that the infamous “Three-strikes” law in California came on the heels of the killing of white women from privileged backgrounds.  No ghetto or barrio or working class killing will result in any uproar.  Even in the Simpson case, it was not so much that he was a black man, but that he was a “celebrity” and of course the victims were both white and upper-middle class.  The key variable – trumping race – was class, a word we hardly ever utter in polite company and one that rarely is discussed in the media, nor in political discourse.  How often did you hear class and class inequality discussed in the recent elections?  Yet research in the social sciences during the past 100 years or so has documented over and over again that social class is one of the most important variables (in most cases the most important) in determining life chances.  Pick any part of the term “life chances” and see how class determines things.  Longevity, income, wealth, health, education, residence, who you marry, the crimes you commit and what your punishment will be, whether or not you will be a victim of a crime, the drugs you use and whether or not you will be an addict, ad infinitum.

There was something else about the Peterson case that illustrates the importance of class: the cheers that went up after the verdict was read.  While it may be true that people like their vengeance and like to see that “justice” is done.  I suspect something else is at work here. The people applauding are mostly rather ordinary folks from the working class and nowhere near the level of income and wealth represented by the Petersons, nor the Simpsons, nor the other celebrity cases in the previous years.  Perhaps they were applauding because someone from that “other class” got caught and will be punished. 

I am not unmindful of another variable that is important here: gender.  Let’s face it, women get screwed (literally and figuratively) by the male world every day.  Gender inequality is still an important feature of American life.  Women lack power, as do racial minorities and the lower and working classes.  In the case of rape, for instance, for every rape that is reported at least ten go unreported, since so many women feel it won’t do any good, since the criminal justice system is still male-dominated. And collectively women get battered thousands of times a day and often live in fear.  Their complaints usually fall upon deaf ears and about the only thing that is done on their behalf is that useless law with no teeth known as a “restraining order.”  When all else fails, they kill the bastard.  You know what happens next?  They get sent to prison, even though it was clearly self-defense. 

Which brings me to another point: generally speaking, when the victim’s social position (however this is measured) is higher than their perpetrator, the penalties are harsher than if the situation were reversed.  The ultimate example is that when blacks kill whites they are far more likely (12 times more likely according to one study) to receive the death penalty.  Other examples include children killing parents.  Also, look at the punishments handed out to CEO’s who victimize their workers and consumers.