The California Highway Patrol's recent decision to publicly declare Craig Peyer guilty of the murder of Cara Knott before his trial has even begun is appalling.
The statement that Peyer killed Knott was made in a document filed with the state Personnel Board firing the 13-year CHP officer. It stated that Peyer "did, without justification, kill Ms. Cara Knott." The CHP division chief had planned to discuss the investigation of Peyer in more detail at a press conference, but was prevented from doing so by a temporary restraining order issued by a judge at the request of Peyer's defense attorney.
The CHP's desire to rid itself of a bad apple is understandable and appropriate. But the CHP is not responsible for the murder investigation, and for it to publicly convict Peyer before his trial is a serious lapse of professionalism.
Taxpayers may applaud the fact they no longer are paying the $3,000-a-month salary of a man who has been bound over for murder and suspended with pay since January. But there were other ways to accomplish that. While state law limits a suspension without pay to 15 days, judging by the other accusations contained in the report, there were a host of reasons short of murder to fire Peyer.
For example, the report says Peyer stopped several women motorists at night, forcing them to park in a dark place and detaining them for excessive amounts of time. During these stops, he was "overly familiar and engaged them in improper personal discussions." The report says he gave one woman an unauthorized tour of the area near where Knott died. Surely a case could be made that Peyer had no business being a highway patrolman regardless of whether he committed murder.
We do not believe that the CHP's statements about Peyer preclude his receiving a fair trial in San Diego. Juries have shown time and again in high-profile cases that they can objectively weigh the evidence and bring in thoughtful verdicts. But defense attorneys and judges do not always see things that way, and it is curious that the CHP would risk creating a prejudicial climate that could lead to a change of venue for the trial. Law enforcement agencies--and we suspect the CHP is typical in this regard--are usually extremely tight-lipped about criminal investigations so as not to jeopardize any aspect of their case.
Furthermore, with a charge as serious as murder, it makes no sense for Peyer's employer to convict him administratively when his guilt or innocence will soon be decided in a trial. The judicial system should have been allowed to play itself out before the Highway Patrol blurted out its conclusions.