The news media announced the jury’s verdict this week: Scott Peterson should receive the death penalty for the brutal murder of his wife and unborn son. More than one juror said Peterson’s lack of emotion during the trial was a deciding factor in the penalty phase of the court proceedings. One observed, “For me, a big part of it was at the end — the verdict — no emotion. No anything. That spoke a thousand words — loud and clear.” Still another commented, “I still would like to see, I don’t know if remorse is the right word… He lost his wife and his child and he’s romancing a girlfriend. That doesn’t make sense to me — at all.”
People with a good heart can’t comprehend Peterson’s unemotional demeanor. But the veritable mountain of evidence tells us why he was incapable of any overt sensitivities. Consider:
He pursued romance with another woman during the search for his wife. He told his mistress that he was single, when in fact he was not only married, but his wife was expecting their first child. He lied to his mistress as to his whereabouts during a phone conversation. He had multiple affairs during his marriage. He killed his pregnant wife and unborn son and then dumped their lifeless bodies in the bay. He converted his unborn son’s baby room into a storage area. He told a TV interviewer that on the morning his wife was reported missing, he had loaded his lawn umbrellas in his warehouse to protect them for the winter, but police found them in the back of his truck later that same day. He lied to TV reporters when he said that he had broken off his relationship with his mistress after his wife vanished.
Frankly, I’m not surprised that Peterson never shed any tears or exhibited any emotion. We can’t expect conscience from someone who is devoid of such. Conscience is a God-given sense of moral oughtness. It is an inward conviction that there is such a thing as right and wrong. But Peterson’s conscience has been so irreparably damaged that it is impervious to feeling. That “pain nerve of his soul” has been rendered insensible (Titus 1:15).
In 1 Timothy 4, the Bible speaks of those whose conscience is “seared with a hot iron” (v. 2b; cf. Mark 3:5; John 12:40). Commenting on this passage, one student observes:
“It seems more probable that kausteriazo is used here in its alternative, medical sense… When skin, a nerve or a superficial tumor is cauterized, it is destroyed by burning and so rendered insensitive. Just so, a cauterized conscience has been ‘anaesthetized’, even deadened. By constantly arguing with conscience, stifling its warnings and muffling its bell, its voice is smothered and eventually silenced” (John Stott, “Local Leadership,” Guard the Truth, InterVarsity Press, p. 112).
This is exactly what happened to Scott Peterson. He got to the point inwardly where he was “past feeling” (Ephesians 4:18,19); his conscience had been cauterized. Normal men suffer pain and guilt when they do wrong. It’s illogical to engage in your families’ demise and not experience pangs of grief and sorrow. And ultimately that’s what sealed his fate. His real accuser during that three-month trial was his Vulcan-like passivity. Peterson should have wept. He should have wailed. But he just sat there — unmoved, stoic, indifferent.
There’s a lesson for us here. We need to properly train, guard, and protect our conscience (Romans 2:15; 9:1; 2 Corinthians 1:12; Hebrews 13:18; 1 Timothy 1:5). If you or I engage in sin but feel no pain, that’s a signal that we need to rush to the emergency ward (e.g. church) and visit the Great Physician (Hebrews 9:14; 10:19-22). “The good conscience must be kept healthy, vital, alive, and fully enlightened if we are to do the right thing. We must, therefore, always be filled with the desire to do right, and when we fail to do right because of ignorance or weakness, we must get right” (cf. Hebrews 10:22; Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9). …When we have done wrong and take God’s way for getting right, our conscience recovers its soundness and becomes a good (1 Peter 3:21) conscience” (D. Ellis Walker, “Your Conscience Never Hurts?”, Gospel Advocate, May 5, 1977, p. 282).