Peterson death sentence relayed via messaging

No-cameras rule can't dampen media circus, as Web sites offer live short text messages from inside the court.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
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Much of the online world was glued to computer screens Monday to hear the jury in the Scott Peterson double-murder trial call for the death penalty.

A number of news organizations broadcast live audio of the sentencing recommendation, including a live report from inside the courtroom delivered via short text messaging. The decision was announced at approximately 1:50 p.m. PST.

The California trial of Peterson, for the murder of his pregnant 27-year-old wife, Laci, and their unborn child, Conner, has captured the attention of much of the world. Peterson claimed that he was innocent of the charges. But last month, the jury found Peterson guilty of first-degree murder for killing his wife and of second-degree murder for the death of his unborn son.

Jurors deliberated for about 12 hours before deciding that the former fertilizer salesman should die.

Peterson's death penalty sentencing was covered live via a wireless device, adding a new dimension to TV news coverage. A reporter from KCRA-TV in Sacramento used a laptop to send reports from inside the courtroom back to the TV station's newsroom, using an existing wireless network inside the courtroom.

The word picture augmented what was an audio-only feed from inside the courtroom due to a ban on cameras in the court. "Four bailiffs are lined up on the left side" of the courtroom, "Juror 11 winked" and "Scott walked in, smiles at his parents" were among the missives that scrolled by on-screen.

The news reporting represents a gray area in courtroom procedures, some journalism experts say. Like most other courts in the United States, San Mateo County bans anyone inside a courtroom from using cell phones--another kind of wireless device--at any time. But KCRA News Director Dan Weiser said there are no rules about using the existing wireless network.

"We think we were allowed to do this," Weiser said.

San Mateo County Court Executive Officer Peggy Thompson said she's now investigating just what happened and whether any rules were violated.

Journalism experts say use of wireless networks in the courts is largely undefined.

"Courts in general don't have a very good policy yet on wireless networks," said Michael Overing, an adjunct professor of Internet law at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.

"This is sort of uncharted territory," said Jim Bettinger, director of the Knight Fellowships for professional journalists at Stanford University. Bettinger said the fragmentary reporting that comes from text messaging could raise a red flag. "Judges may be concerned about that," he said.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse in Redwood City, near San Francisco, and some appeared to celebrate the death verdict. Peterson was vilified in his hometown, Modesto, from where the trial was moved to find a more impartial jury.

Under California law, Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi could disagree with the jury and impose a life prison term when he sentences Peterson on Feb. 25, but California judges rarely overturn the will of juries in death penalty cases, according to the Reuters news service.

Web traffic to news sites appeared to spike around the time of the sentencing recommendation. ABC News' home page, along with those of MSNBC, the Christian Science Monitor, required greater time to completely download, according to Keynote Systems, which tracks Web site performance.

In addition, postings about the trial proliferated on Internet message boards Monday.

"Justice has been served," one person wrote on a message board hosted by Court TV after the death penalty recommendation. Another commenter focused on the demands put on the jury: "Not what I would have voted for but an appropriate sentence anyway. I believe the jurors labored long & hard for this verdict. Bless them, they need a long rest now."

Still another person sounded ready to return to matters other than the high-profile trial. "I am having major (anxiety) right now!! I think I may need an anti-depressant--do Dr.'s give those to people w/ anxiety?!" the person wrote before the death sentence recommendation was pronounced. "Honestly, I'm ready for this to be over."

CNET News.com's Evan Hansen and Reuters contributed to this report.