Scott Peterson appeared in headlines daily in 2002 as he became a suspect in the disappearance of his pregnant wife, Laci, in Modesto, California. The case quickly became tabloid fodder as it played out, with grisly details emerging in the following year that pointed to Peterson’s involvement.
But as the world viewed Peterson with a presumption of guilt, a young Dominica Dela Cruz couldn’t help but wonder why the man had been convicted by the public before he’d even gone to trial.
“I remember saying, “He could be innocent,” said Dela Cruz, a third-year law student at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. “My mom, everyone thought I was crazy for that.”
Peterson ended up being convicted for murder in the highly visible case and is currently a prisoner on death row. Not a kid anymore, Dela Cruz agrees now that the evidence supported the jury’s decision to convict Peterson. But what she didn’t lose from becoming engrossed in the Peterson trial was her is a passion for wanting to see those accused of a crime receive a fair trial.
That early experience led Dela Cruz to pursue a career in law and to relocate from her home state of Texas to attend the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She was drawn to Utah in part because of the college’s excellent reputation for its clinical program, along with volunteer opportunities in the community.
“I was looking for a school that had a lot of good community service work,” said De;a Cruz. “Along with the small class sizes, I would get the individualized personalized attention that I needed.”
She has worked at the college’s Innocence Clinic, Criminal Clinic, and the Innocence clinic in Michigan, with S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Jensie Anderson as an advisor. She has gained hands on experience working on cases ranging from wrongful convictions, drugs, and truancy.
“I don’t know what I would have done without these opportunities. I needed something to make me feel like I was helping,” Cruz said. “I learned how to apply the law instead of just reading about it in a textbook.”
She was the recipient of a Utah Minority Bar Association Scholarship and received the 2016 Frankel Public Interest Summer Fellowship. She’s also leading Kid’s Court this year, in which law student volunteers teach fifth and sixth grade students from underserved populations in Salt Lake City about the law and civic engagement through a weekly afterschool program.
Cruz has come far since her days of watching coverage of the Peterson trial as a kid with her mom, an admitted Court TV fan.
She hopes to be a juvenile defender someday and keep working in the innocence field, working to free those wrongfully convicted.
“Innocence work would be amazing to do,” she said. “The way innocence work has impacted me as a person is beyond anything that I could have imagined. I’m so grateful to have the experiences I have had at the law school.”