The verdict is in. No, we're not talking about the jury's guilty finding in People vs. Scott Peterson. We're talking about the real showdown -- the fiery battles that take place among the legal-panel members on CNN's "Larry King Live," who reliably tear each other up over the big trial of the moment.
The California trial of Peterson -- convicted Friday of killing his eight-months-pregnant wife, Laci, and the couple's unborn son -- was a Larry King staple for much of the year. For help in understanding the case, King turned to former prosecutor Nancy Grace and defense lawyer Chris Pixley. But King's connections to the case were much deeper: Regular panelist Mark Geragos couldn't appear with much frequency (especially after the judge insisted on it) because he was Peterson's lead attorney. However, Peterson's "other woman," the evocatively named Amber Frey, was represented by King favorite Gloria Allred, a "victims'-rights advocate" -- who continued to appear regularly on "Larry King Live" throughout the case.
King's show has always gotten good ratings from recruiting celebrity lawyers to comment on celebrity cases, but over the years, his obsession with celebrity justice has only grown, to where we need more than a courtroom verdict for resolution. We need a verdict about the celebrity lawyers themselves.
The current alpha lawyer of Larry World is Nancy Grace, only the latest in King's line of impressively maned former prosecutrixes, including Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom (the wife of equally dashing San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom), the late Barbara Olson, and Star Jones (before she moved on to dish with Barbara Walters and Co. on "The View").
Grace jet-fueled her commentating career on King's show eight years ago, opining on -- what else? -- O.J. Simpson's civil trial. Her ability to be shocked, shocked, on demand led to a co-hosting gig on Court TV with -- who else? -- Johnnie Cochran. Grace was a hit, although the show wasn't, and she's been a Court TV staple ever since. She's drifted back to "Larry King Live" in the past few years, serving as a commentator and, more frequently, guest host.
Grace has deep contempt for defendants and a virulent hatred for defense lawyers. She makes no apologies for the former; her feelings are the outgrowth of the murder of her fiancé more than 20 years ago. As for the latter, she defiantly insists that they are nothing but "bamboozlers." She once explained to King, "I have never been a defense lawyer ... because I don't want to stand in front of a jury and lie through my teeth."
Her contention that the defendant is guilty -- always -- gives her a sense of conviction that is both touching and ridiculous. She is fond of grasping at any piece of evidence, however slight, as irrefutable proof of guilt. For one thing, Grace sees Peterson's offer to get a vasectomy as evidence that he wanted get rid of his unborn child. "He spontaneously volunteered for a snip job, a vasectomy. I don't know about you guys, but I don't see them line up outside the clinic for a vasectomy. He did not want a family," she said. Also damning, in Grace's view, was the Christmas gift Peterson had gotten for his wife: a Louis Vuitton wallet. He had bought Frey stargazing equipment, a gift Grace found to be far more romantic.
To cement her points, Grace is fond of making Delphic pronouncements, such as "There is no coincidence in criminal law" or "Today, everything hit the brakes. The skid's on the evidence. And everyone left the courthouse." And King, in his inimitable King way, nods knowingly. And Chris Pixley, in his inimitable Pixley way, looks offended. And then we cut to commercial.
But sometimes, after the nodding and the offended looks and the commercials are over -- or even before they've begun -- Grace gets called on the carpet by King or a caller and is forced to defend her sweeping pronouncements and the implication of guilt -- or to apologize for them.
At one point during the Peterson trial, Scott Peterson's own father, Lee Peterson, felt compelled to call in and take Grace to task for expressing certainty of his son's guilt well before the jury had a chance to render its verdict.
"Nancy, I've watched many programs ... And I just have to say, for some reason you seem to have a personal stake in this, a personal vendetta against my son, and I do not understand it. When you come on and you state things about my son, it is so obvious that you are just caught up in this thing and there's no room for, you know, innocence until proven guilty. And I'm just appalled by that," Lee Peterson said.
"All right," King said. "Nancy, how do you respond?"
"Well, I respond like this, Larry ... I take the facts as I hear them and I apply the law as I know it," Grace said. "And after trying well over 100 felony trials before juries, it's my belief that there's a very strong case against Scott. But in response to his father's call, I know he may not believe it, but my heart goes out to him and the pain his family's having, but I am speaking on behalf of what I believe to be true, on behalf of Laci Peterson, neither against Scott, for Scott, for the state, against the state, but what I believe to be true regarding her murder."
Lee Peterson didn't let up on Grace. "You've had your say here for months, and you've crucified my son on national media ... You have no idea of his background and what a wonderful son and wonderful man he is," he said. "You have no knowledge of that and you sit there as a judge and jury, I guess, and you're convicting him on the national media, and you should be absolutely ashamed of yourself."
Last year, Grace had to apologize on-screen for taking her analysis of the Michael Jackson case too far -- and perhaps opening up the network to a libel suit. On the Nov. 25 broadcast, King addressed the audience: "Nancy Grace made a statement on this program during last night's discussion of the Michael Jackson case suggesting that private investigator Bradley Miller fabricated evidence. This statement was without factual basis and we did not mean to imply he has engaged or will engage in any wrongdoing and we apologize and we'll have Nancy comment. Nancy?"
Grace then gave this remarkably unapologetic qualification to her wild speculation the night before: "That's right, Larry. [I] anticipated a credibility attack on this alleged victim, the boy, and his mother. But as far as the P.I. making up something at this juncture, I don't think there's a reason to believe that, not right now."
Verdict: Innocent of logical analysis
Pixley is the mid-list defense lawyer plucked by King to be his weekly whipping boy. By all indications, Pixley has earned his King-given label of "high-profile defense attorney" solely by appearing on King's show. Previous career highlights -- according to the slickly produced Christopher D. Pixley Law site -- include the stirring "Consummated large confidential settlement of patent infringement lawsuit on behalf of inventor in the Commonwealth of Virginia."
But no one really seems to be arguing that the 36-year-old lawyer's résumé is his most impressive attribute. With Rob-Lowe-esque hair and the cheeks of a mid-'90s Ethan Hawke, Pixley, who is based in Atlanta, has the appeal of a too-pretty-for-his-own-good movie star. And he has the fan worship on the Internet to prove it, with terminology ranging from "seductively smart" to unprintable.
Pixley, the low man on the King totem pole, with the thankless role of defending defense attorneys, is still in the early stages of his Larry-led climb up the celebrity-trial ladder. For the moment, he's relegated to defending alleged perpetrators only on the air, not in court. That gave him the rather unenviable job of sticking up for Scott Peterson. It's not easy being a cheerleader for a man who regularly picked up the phone to sweet-talk his mistress (feeding her a steady diet of lies and clichés) while a statewide manhunt was underway for his missing wife and unborn child.
During the trial, plucky Pixley did his best with what little he had, but his explanation of Peterson's behavior often seemed tortured at best. Take, for example, his explanation of the defendant's affair with Frey: "I've always wondered if the fact that Scott hid the affair isn't more evidence of his innocence, rather than his guilt. Because if Scott Peterson was innocent, and thought Laci Peterson was coming home, he might very well have wanted to maintain good relations with his in-laws and not let the world know about his affair." Of course, a hidden affair is a screaming indicator of innocence. Why didn't Peterson's counsel think of that?
Generally, Pixley's attempts to stick up for Peterson fell into two categories. The first was his unwavering certainty that Scott Peterson had a golden alibi that defense lawyer Geragos, in his infinite wisdom, would reveal only when he saw fit. "We still haven't seen anything from the defense," he regularly reminded us. "I think it's only going to get worse for the prosecution."
Pixley's second tactic was distraction by confusion. He was fond of making opaque references to the "lemon meringue debacle" and the "satanic cult theory," accompanied by a knowing nod. After all, how can we be sure of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when there are devilish pie-eaters out there?
Verdict: Guilty of stopping the heart of many a suburban housewife
Allred is a self-styled victims'-rights advocate, fond of calling meetings with prosecutors and issuing press releases on the subject of cases (Michael Jackson being the prime example) in which she has no stake.
Amber Frey is typical of Allred's sympathetic clients; Allred earlier represented Denise Brown, the sister of Nicole Brown Simpson, and she had her star turn on "Entertainment Tonight" by representing Hunter Tylo, the soap opera star who was fired after she got pregnant.
Allred can be maudlin, overdramatic and ever desperate for new levels of pathos. To her, the Peterson case is the tragedy of not one but two women: Laci and "Amber, brave Amber." And because her client is not officially a party to the case, Allred is not subject to the gag orders or cautionary tactics that often bind lawyers.
Like Grace, Allred is fond of latching on to sentimental and often silly bits of evidence, damning Peterson through character evaluations: "To me, the bombshell this afternoon was hearing Scott say what he thought was the best movie ever. What was that movie? 'The Shining.' What happens in 'The Shining?' 'The Shining' is about a husband whose mental state deteriorates so much that he tries to kill his wife. It's a chilling movie, Larry. Everyone who saw Jack Nicholson in it thought what I think, that it was a very chilling horror movie. Even more chilling is that it's Scott Peterson's favorite movie."
On days when Allred is too busy following around Michael Jackson to appear on "Larry King Live," her daughter, Lisa Bloom, has been known to fill in. Bloom, a Court TV anchor, is the spice to her mother's sweetness, the bad girl who gets a kick out of the dirty details. "Amber Frey, I think, is Scott Peterson's fantasy girl," she offered midway through the trial. "She's the beautiful, thin massage therapist who's willing to be sexual with him." Alas, King never did ask Allred what she thought of the way her daughter characterized her client on national TV. His viewers will just have to use their imagination.
Verdict: Guilty of making people feel guilty (in true grandmotherly style)
For Mark Geragos, the most frustrating part of the Peterson trial must be his inability to opine on it with King. Geragos, the defense lawyer representing Scott Peterson, was bound by a gag order issued by Superior Court Judge Al Girolami, an order that barred him from talking about the case with any members of the media. (Both Geragos and Allred protested the order, but the judge exempted only Allred.)
The order cruelly deprived Geragos of what should have been his moment in the sun -- the apogee of the mustachioed maven's climb through the ranks of celeb-trial stardom. Where Chris Pixley is just starting out, Geragos is a master of the craft, a slick impresario who could pass Lizzie Borden off as a disoriented lumberjack.
In his pre-King days, Geragos was a defense lawyer just like the rest of 'em. But then came the Susan McDougal trial, an unglamorous case that turned into a presidential standoff. With McDougal came Geragos' first visit to "Larry King Live," and the chemistry was instant. Geragos is a master of the medium: sympathetic but not treacly, forceful but not strident, appealing but not too pretty. King loved him, and so, it was clear, did the callers.
And Geragos surely loves King; his star has risen dramatically after becoming a King staple, representing presidential half-brother Roger Clinton, then Winona Ryder, Gary Condit and Michael Jackson. And, finally, there was Scott Peterson: a celebrity defendant famous solely for being a celebrity defendant represented by a celebrity lawyer famous solely for being a celebrity lawyer.
And then, in what should have been his hour of triumph, Geragos was forcibly muted. The man who called Michael Jackson an idealistic gentleman, who called Winona selfless, was denied the pleasure of coining a pretty new phrase for his client Scott Peterson to wear like a glinting badge.
Verdict: The Peterson trial's second-biggest loser, but at least he can visit Larry King again.