BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This Friday, for your viewing pleasure, the USA cable network offered "The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story," starring erstwhile TV superman Dean Cain as Scott Peterson, now awaiting trial for the murder of his pregnant wife on Christmas Eve 2002. That's the point -- still awaiting trial. The jury hasn't even been selected yet. Peterson's attorney Mark Geragos told reporters this week that he'd probably watch the movie. He says he's got nothing else to do on Friday nights, but that he'd also probably raise with the judge his concern that it could taint the jury pool. After all, in the film, as in life, it doesn't look good for Peterson. [CLIP PLAYS]
MAN: He runs. He's guilty.
MAN: Well, we nail him the press leaves town.
MAN: They love this. Pretty white girl with good teeth, pregnant, Christmas Eve. Perfect. You're going down, Scotty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: USA Spokesman John Kelley is quoted as saying "There is virtually no information in this movie that hasn't appeared in print or on newscasts... We stick to the facts, but there are things done because of time compression." But though the facts may be out there, they were gathered over months. They may taste different when digested in a mere 90 minutes, seasoned by the musings of family members contrived for the movie or comments of composite pals. [CLIP PLAYS]
MAN: People saw her that morning, Kate.
WOMAN: The police talked to those people.
WOMAN: They ruled them out. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: People saw Laci just like Scott said.
WOMAN: [SHOUTING] They ruled them out, Tommy!
MAN: [SHOUTING] Kate! I saw-- I saw him in the nursery. I helped him put that crib together. He wanted that baby.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trial consultant Sonia Chopra works out of the Oakland, California office of the National Jury Project which provides attorneys with research to improve jury selection. She says it's hard for jurists to find the truth when art too much resembles life.
SONIA CHOPRA: There's something in psychological theory, you know, memory research, that's called source confusion error, and that's when sometimes we see something or hear something and we forget where we saw it. There's been a lot of research done showing that people witness an event, say there was a video, and they'll see a car accident. And then at some point later, they will be told, you know, there was a stop sign. When they think back about the movie that they saw, they sometimes remember that the stop sign was there, even though it wasn't there in the movie. They're remembering it because they were told it later. It's the same sort of thing -- it's source confusion error.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But USA could argue, in fact it has argued, that the movie is just a drop in the media bucket with respect to Peterson. What's one movie in a sea of talk shows and speculating pundits that potential jurors have been exposed to over the last year?
SONIA CHOPRA: I think it's the nature of it, the intimate conversations, the actor who looks strikingly like Scott Peterson -- those are the types of things that are going to stick in people's mind, and then, again, when potential jurors are at trial, and they're thinking back to what happened, images from the TV movie could come out in their mind -- and then they're trying to think back from two months ago --did I hear it this way, or was it really this way? Did he go to the marina three times or did he go to the marina one time?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:All this seems to be just another in a new TV innovation called the "pre-conviction docudrama" [LAUGHTER] as I've read in the papers. And it used to be that movies came out with surprising speed after a trial, like the one about the Menendez brothers, but recently we've seen pre-trial docudramas about the D.C. snipers and Martha Stewart. I have to assume that this trend bothers you.
SONIA CHOPRA: Yes, it does. If I were the defense, I would be more concerned about this movie than about any of the print media or any of the TV coverage, even interviews with the family, because I think we can look at that and say okay, this is news, this is reporting, the family has this slant on it. This movie is presented as if it's reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they'd say no, it's not. Everybody knows a movie is a movie is a movie.
SONIA CHOPRA:I'm not saying that people are so naive as that they're going to think that this is real. You know, they'll tell the judge, yes, I can put it out of my mind. Yes, I'm not going to let it influence me, but it's virtually impossible - I know of no research that shows that people can truly set aside pre-conceived biases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has the USA network done anything illegal by airing this TV movie just prior to the trial?
SONIA CHOPRA:I don't think it's illegal, but I think it's unfortunate. The problem being, of course, that had they waited until even a jury panel was called, not necessarily empaneled, the judge could have given an admonition to the group of, you know, 400 jurors saying listen, this movie's going to be on -- don't watch it. That's not to say that some of them still would, but at least it's something. At this point, there's no way to prevent anybody from watching it. I know of a case in Canada where there was a trial for the Christian Brotherhood in Ontario, and they had a made for TV movie coming out -- CBC was putting it out -- and they effectively blocked it, and in that instance, the prosecution agreed with the defense that it was so damaging that they should delay the airing of the movie until after the trial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that wasn't America, Ms. Chopra.
SONIA CHOPRA: [LAUGHS] That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Would you be concerned about the First Amendment if you were to file for sort of prior restraint on this thing, blocking it before the trial?
SONIA CHOPRA: I don't really see how the First Amendment right would necessarily be violated by delaying it a few weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The public has a right to see Dean Cain playing Scott Peterson.
SONIA CHOPRA: [LAUGHS] They have a right to see Dean Cain playing Scott Peterson, but they, they don't have a right to see it tomorrow. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much.
SONIA CHOPRA: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trial consultant Sonia Chopra works out of the Oakland, California office of the National Jury Project.