Peterson's attorney Rusty Hardin made that much clear on Wednesday, when the Minnesota Vikings running back emerged for a plea hearing that eventually produced a tentative trial date of Dec. 1 to face a felony child abuse charge. Peterson sat in the front row of the courtroom – flanked by his wife, mother, father and an NFL agent – and watched as Hardin did the heavy lifting.
When it was over, Hardin had used the day to accentuate three primary talking points to the judge, prosecution and courtroom gallery:
1. Peterson's trial can't get here fast enough.
2. Peterson is having his name/reputation unfairly smeared as he awaits trial.
3. Peterson is a good family man with the support of his community, who made a parenting decision that is open to interpretation.
Whether the public agrees with those points remains to be seen.
Hardin wasted no time Wednesday, in a courtroom session that went slightly off the rails when the prosecution asked for a recusal of Judge Kelly Case. District Attorney Brett Ligon took offense to Judge Case allegedly calling attorneys in the Peterson case "media whores," and Ligon filed a motion for a new judge. A hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 4 to discuss the possibility of replacing Case. Because of that hearing, Peterson on Wednesday did not enter his expected plea of not guilty.
All of this was a sideshow to Hardin, who arrived on the scene wearing a light gray pinstriped suit and pink tie, whisking up the courthouse steps and into his domain. Remembered nationally for his spirited defense of Roger Clemens in the former star pitcher's performance-enhancement drugs fiasco, Hardin wearing pinstripes is appropriate. He's the Texas version of the New York Yankees – a successful, long-tenured, well-known winner in the courtroom who exudes charm.
His record is such that at one point while discussing motions Wednesday, Judge Case turned to Ligon and referenced having known Hardin for a number of years. Perhaps that's why Ligon appealed to have Judge Case removed. Or perhaps it's because the district attorney and judge have a bloodied relationship from other legal battles.
Indeed, three times in a 14-month span Ligon successfully argued to overturn rulings rendered by Judge Case. In all three contentious appeals, Ligon said Case had not upheld Texas law, and the appellate court agreed. Those appeals, as well his decision to once jail a schoolteacher for six hours (without bond) for missing jury duty, led to Judge Case coming under media scrutiny. With that in mind, it's fair to say the history between the prosecution and the presiding judge is less than pristine.
Hardin knows as much, and he could be seen yielding to the judge at various times, most interesting during the "media whores" discussion. Hardin told Judge Case it didn't bother him and that he had been called worse. The prosecution apparently didn't find it so amusing.
All of which provides an odd start to the Peterson case – with the judge and prosecution already at odds and having a significant amount of water under the bridge. Meanwhile, Hardin is going like a locomotive, trying to get the case moving along "absolutely as quickly as possible." That's what Hardin said from the county courthouse steps, in a scene from a movie – circled by cameras and microphones as his client stood behind him.
Hardin's thinking makes perfect sense. The faster this trial arrives, the less chance of tainting a jury pool. The faster it arrives, the less time the prosecution has to gather additional information against Peterson. And the faster it arrives, the less time the media has to dig further into Peterson's life for unflattering stories.
"I know you're going to keep chasing stories everywhere," Hardin said to a throng of media Wednesday. "That's fine. God bless the First Amendment. I'm not out here to complain about the articles or any of the coverage. I would say, however, there's always another side. I hope y'all start chasing the other side some."
While speed was point No. 1, Hardin's "chasing the other side" message was No. 2. Hardin brought it up to the judge, that proceedings needed to speed up as Peterson was "being killed publicly" by the media without a fair chance to respond. He mentioned what he believed were inaccurate reports, a likely reference to a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story that lodged serious allegations against both Peterson's personal life and the management of his "All Day" foundation.
It's those types of reports that make Hardin's goal of staying on the "good father, good man" message more difficult. They also tend to be the ones that plant seeds into the minds of a jury that will need to be convinced of the difference between "punishment" and "abuse."
And that is point No. 3 – possibly the most difficult of all for Hardin in light of the alleged photo and text evidence of abuse against Peterson's 4-year-old son. Hardin is broadcasting his belief that Peterson is a good dad who made a parenting decision based on the norms and values of his own community.
This is the sticky part – the difference between punishing a child and abusing a child. And it's why there is unlikely to be any plea agreement. The prosecution has made it clear that it wants Peterson to be recognized for having "abused" his child. Any plea out of that phrase would be seen as a failure. In essence, there is nowhere else to go for Hardin and the prosecution since child abuse is child abuse. There is no real lesser standard for Peterson to have broken. Either he's guilty of it or not.
The "abuse" term will be the centerpiece of the trial. Corporal punishment is legal in Texas. But standards are nebulous. For example, a belt is allowable, but not an extension cord. Striking a child as a form of reprimand is allowable, but leaving a mark on a child is not. Somewhere in between the line is blurred, and that's when cases like Peterson's are left to be hashed out by a jury. With one question in mind: Was punishment specifically excessive enough to be considered abuse?
Peterson will be tried in Montgomery County, a place that according to the most recent U.S. Census data is 89.9 percent white and has a median income of more than $66,000. It's known as a suburban, conservative and middle- to upper middle-class community. Perhaps more important, it banned corporal punishment in the Conroe Independent School District, the largest school system in the county.
The prosecution intends to cull a jury from that very same county and show it the photos of Peterson's allegedly bruised, marked and bloodied son, as well as the alleged text messages Peterson sent after the incident occurred. Ligon could also reveal some wild cards, such as any potential witnesses of past behavior that might be considered a pattern of excessiveness.
This is why Hardin spent so much time Wednesday portraying Peterson as a man who is supported by his wife and family, and painting his legal battle as "a case about parenting decisions and whether something unfortunate happened when a parenting decision was made."
So Peterson goes to trial, sooner rather than later. Until then, Hardin will continue constructing his infrastructure for a win, trying to convince the jury of public opinion right now, and hoping to do the same thing in the courtroom a little later.