Larry Peterson Free at last, yet not truly free

Posted: August 30, 2005

Larry Peterson is free for now, and that's good. But not good enough.

The 54-year-old Burlington County man was released from jail Saturday, finally, after nearly 18 years behind bars for murder. A judge overturned Peterson's conviction after DNA tests showed he's not the man who raped and killed Jacqueline Harrison in Pemberton Township in 1987.

Peterson knows that his release on $20,000 bail is due in large part to two important women in his life - his mother, Susie Peterson, and his lawyer, Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project. Both have been fighting for years to prove his innocence. "My mom is a fantastic woman," Peterson said a few days before gaining his freedom. "So is my attorney."

But the welcome news of Peterson's freedom doesn't prove the justice system is working the way it should.

Because if it did, Peterson wouldn't be facing a second trial for this murder he didn't commit.

Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi says the lack of Peterson's DNA on the victim doesn't prove his innocence. So now there is a new standard in Burlington County's criminal justice system - a defendant must prove his innocence, rather than a prosecutor proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

That's the worst kind of cover-your-behind reasoning.

The forensic evidence - hair and semen - that was used to convict Peterson in 1989 has been refuted scientifically. The semen belonged to three other men, not Peterson. The hair belonged to the victim, not Peterson. Do the county taxpayers really want to foot the bill to simply repeat a trial that turned out wrong 16 years ago?

Bernardi should learn from a similar case in Pittsburgh. Thomas Doswell was convicted of raping a woman in a hospital in 1986, and was sentenced to 13 to 26 years in prison. Doswell refused four chances to be paroled because it would have required him to admit his guilt. DNA testing in March finally proved that he was not the rapist. A judge overturned his sentence.

The district attorney in that case asked for the criminal charges to be dismissed, and Doswell became truly a free man. The judge apologized to him for the injustice that had been perpetrated.

That is what's owed to Larry Peterson, not months more of uncertainty and the prospect of another trial.

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