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Legal Briefs

Aired January 26, 2003 - 08:12   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: From Laci Peterson, nearly nine months pregnant, and now missing one month and two days, to a wife on trial for allegedly running over her husband, to the victim of a shocking hospital mistake, we're checking what's on the docket this hour in our "Legal Briefs." And joining us now from Philadelphia, trial attorney and CNN contributor, Michael Smerconish -- good morning to you, Michael.

COLLINS: And from New York, "Court TV's" Catherine Crier. Good morning to you as well, Catherine.


COLLINS: Let's go ahead and start with the Laci Peterson case. On Friday night I'm sure you both caught the press conference, absolutely heart wrenching, from the family of Laci Peterson. Her brother, sister, could hardly talk. The mother obviously upset.

We also heard from Amber Frey, the woman allegedly who I guess she does say that she was in a relationship with Scott Peterson. Did not know, however, that he was married. Obviously another very upset person in this whole mess. Tell us, Michael, what is going on here now? What is going to happen with Amber Frey?

SMERCONISH: Well it's starting to look and quack like a duck. I mean I know I'm supposed to sit here and say just because the guy is an adulterer it doesn't make him a murderer, but I have a hard time saying that because I think most people in the country who are following this case figure in for a penny, in for a pound. If he was fooling around on a pregnant wife, one who is nine months pregnant, he probably did it. And in my heart, that's what I'm thinking.

COLLINS: Catherine?

CRIER: Well Michael read my mind. You first looked at the spouse, very close family members in a case like this. When I heard that he had spent Christmas Eve with his eight and a half month pregnant wife off fishing, my first thought was, hey, that marriage ain't going to last. And it doesn't sound like things are very good.

They've even found concrete mix in a storage warehouse, where he said he explained he was mixing weights for his anchors. Doesn't look good. COLLINS: All right. I think we're in agreement on this; at least the two of you are. I would like to move on now to Clara Harris, the woman who allegedly ran over her husband with a Mercedes. Michael, what do you make of this one?

SMERCONISH: Well I'm anxious to hear what Catherine has to say about the pulse of a Texas jury, because Catherine's got great credentials in that regard. I can tell you this: I did this subject on my radio program in Philadelphia expecting that I'd get female callers who would say, that SOB, he deserved it and she ought to walk. That's not the reaction that I heard. I heard women say it's treacherous for him to be such a cheater, but, you know what, she's got to do some time here.

COLLINS: And Catherine you say, yes, the jury was packed with women.

CRIER: Well absolutely. And the defense attorney, George Parnham, questioning potential jurors, was asking whether they could sympathize with this situation. Well, many of them said they could, and several of those people are actually on the jury. And a friend of mine I talked to in Houston yesterday, and he said you ought to read the papers.

The papers come out and said things like, gee, you can't see anything on that videotape. Well, you can see her circling around and you can see the car bumping. But the attitude seemed to be it's sort of -- it is that he needed killing (ph) defense. That's the defense that they're using. I think that it is probably going to end up manslaughter, and she might do a short period of time. Could even be sort of a 10-years probation.

SMERCONISH: I mean the thing that may give her more or less a slap on the wrist are the presence of those 4-year-old twins. But the counterbalance is the presence of that 16-year-old stepdaughter in the car while she's running over her dad. I mean you couldn't make this up. Talk about reality TV.

CRIER: Well, and it gets more and more bizarre, because the wife was accused of having an affair with a guy that worked at the dental office, the same place where the husband's mistress was working. The husband's mistress now says she's afraid of this guy. Talk about Texas soap opera, this has got everything. But the daughter is going to be integral -- the stepdaughter -- because she is expected to testify about what mom said during this escapade. And if it sounds like this was premeditated, intentional, deliberate, versus hysterical, that will really hurt her.

COLLINS: All right, Catherine.

SMERCONISH: And yet on the other hand, you have the parents of the decedent hanging in there with the woman on trial, saying, we support her, we're Christians, and enough already.

COLLINS: All right. I want to interrupt real quickly because I need to make sure that we have enough time for our final issue here. And that is the double mastectomy mistake and Linda McDougal. A woman who goes to the hospital to have a double mastectomy because she's told she has cancer. Finds out 48 hours that she doesn't have cancer. But now, her breasts have been removed. Catherine, tell me what you think about this one.

CRIER: Well it's absolutely horrendous. There's no question about it. I had her on my show, along with her attorney, and we talked about it.

The issue that she has brought forward is her objection to President Bush's proposal to cap certain damages. And what's going on right now is she's being used as -- this sounds terrible -- but the poster child for the plaintiff's lawyers right now, saying we cannot do any sort of capping because this woman would be devastated. And we have got to be clear that what he has proposed is capping pain and suffering damages, not damages for her injuries, which are horrible.

COLLINS: But, in fact, Catherine, not every case is like Linda McDougal's.

CRIER: Oh, of course not. Of course not. And thank god this doesn't happen very often. And, in fact, the laboratory apparently had switched the information so that the patient who did have cancer and need this, her records appeared under Linda's name.

So they will be punished. And when we talk about damages -- although the insurance company pays for it. But we've got to be real careful that one horrendous case doesn't prevent some needed torte reform.

COLLINS: And Michael, what do you know of the president's proposed caps?

SMERCONISH: I totally disagree with Catherine on this, and I disagree with the president. I mean, is the value of a woman's breast $125,000 each? Because that's really what we're saying. The president is talking about capping non-economic damages. And in this particular case, it's not going to impact her ability to earn a living unless she's an exotic dancer. And I don't say that for a cheap laugh.

So her case is worth $250,000. That's outrageous, given what she's lost.

CRIER: But that's not true, Michael. You know that's not true.

SMERCONISH: And I think there's a need for torte reform. There's a need for torte reform, but this is not the aberrant case. Harvard says 100,000 people a year are dying because of medical error.

CRIER: But there you go. What are we going to make pain and suffering for one breast, two breasts? Can we look it up in a book somewhere? She can have reconstructive surgery, all of those sorts of things. Any medical problems in the future, all of that is still compensated for at whatever level the jury decides. It's only pain and suffering. You tell me why if someone loses a loved one in a convenience store robbery, why that's worth nothing and two breasts are worth -- pain-wise -- $250,000. The system doesn't work well in this regard.

SMERCONISH: I'll tell you what, I am more comfortable with 12 jurors, 12 of her neighbors and the neighbors of that hospital, determining the value of this case than I am the House and the Senate and the president in Washington.


COLLINS: I want to make a distinction real quickly. Michael, you do say that this is about non-wage earners, the elderly and the poor. That is a little bit...

SMERCONISH: Well the elderly and the poor are the ones who are getting the shaft under this system. And they're the ones who need it the most. And I don't deny that there's a need for torte reform. But you know accountability begins with the physicians. Nobody's talking about them cleaning their own house. And that's what they need to do to start this process.

CRIER: OK. Just remember, though, as we finish this topic up, that this is simply the pain and suffering. That economic damages, damages to repair, ongoing medical problems, all that is taken care of. And what we're asking is, is the system -- can the system make anyone whole again? No.

Monetary damages are all you can do. And pain and suffering can never be proved. It's all a very esoteric determination. So to cap the damages is an appropriate reaction to the medical malpractice problems we have in this country.

SMERCONISH: A woman's breasts are worth more than $250 million to a 46-year-old woman. That's the bottom line.

COLLINS: OK, guys. That's going to have to be the last word. I knew that we wanted to talk about this one because I just knew you didn't agree.

All right. Thank you so very much, Michael Smerconish...

SMERCONISH: Right, Heidi.

COLLINS: ... and Catherine Crier. We appreciate your time once again this Sunday.


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