A Texas judge on Wednesday set a tentative Dec. 1 trial date for Peterson to face a felony charge of child abuse after using a wooden switch to discipline his 4-year-old son in suburban Houston earlier this year. Defence attorney Rusty Hardin said after the hearing that Peterson is "chomping at the bit" to defend himself publicly.
But the case might not be tried before the end of the year, meaning Peterson — who is on paid leave from the team — may not be back on the field this season. The Vikings' final regular-season game is Dec. 28.
The trial date might change, too: Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon said he intends to file a motion to recuse Judge Kelly Case after the judge called each lead attorney in the case a "media whore." Case apologized, saying the comment was meant as a joke.
A Nov. 4 hearing was scheduled on whether to assign a new judge. Case said the trial would likely begin Dec. 1 if keeps the case.
Peterson faces up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted of injury to a child. He has said he never intended to harm his son and was only disciplining him in the same way he had been as a child growing up in East Texas.
Accompanied by his wife and with his mother, Peterson did not speak during his court appearance and did not enter a plea. Hardin has indicated Peterson will plead not guilty and said he wants to try the case as quickly as possible since Peterson can't play while the charge is pending. Hardin had wanted the trial to begin a week before Thanksgiving.
"He just keeps getting hammered without the ability to respond," Hardin told Case. "This is the place to resolve all those allegations."
Peterson arrived in a black Cadillac Escalade and was quickly surrounded by a throng of reporters. Nearby was a person wearing a wildcat costume and holding a sign that said "Free AP" in sparkling letters, prompting a chuckle from Hardin. Several women stood near the courthouse entrance shrieking and talking about how handsome Peterson looked after he entered the building.
After the hearing, Peterson stopped briefly outside to sign a miniature football for a waiting fan and he smiled as the woman thanked him profusely.
"This is a case about parenting decisions and whether something unfortunate happened when a parenting decision was made by a man who believes strongly and loves his children very much," Hardin said after the hearing as Peterson stood behind him and managed a half smile. He will not be in contact with the boy until the case is resolved.
Corporal punishment is legal in every state. The Texas Attorney General's Office notes that belts and brushes "are accepted by many as legitimate disciplinary 'tools,'" but "electrical or phone cords, boards, yardsticks, ropes, shoes, and wires are likely to be considered instruments of abuse."
Legal experts say the final determination of what is reasonable discipline will be based on the standards found in the local community — and Texas law offers no definition of what that is. It says the use of non-deadly force against someone younger than 18 is justified if a parent or guardian "reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare."
If Peterson's case goes to trial, jurors will be picked from a county that is conservative and has banned corporal punishment in its largest school district. E. Tay Bond, an attorney who has worked in Montgomery County for 16 years, said the potential jury pool in the Peterson case will likely not be economically or racially diverse.
F. Scott McCown, director of the Children's Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law that represents children in abuse and neglect cases, said people can have abstract debates about what is reasonable but they tend to come to a consensus when looking at a specific case.
Some of the factors that tend to be used to decide whether corporal punishment was unreasonable include whether a child needed medical attention and if the disciplining left visible marks and bruises, McCown said. According to court records, Peterson's son suffered cuts, marks and bruising to his thighs, back and on one of his testicles.
Prosecutors like Lucy Wilke, who has worked in Central Texas in Kerr County for 17 1/2 years, say they only try cases where it is clear that corporal punishment has veered into child abuse.
Wilke recalled a case in 2009 in which an 11-year-old boy was hit nearly 20 times with a three-foot piece of looped wire by his father, David Dill, for not taking out the trash.
"This was just excessive. This was abuse and not corporal punishment," said Wilke, who helped convict the Kerrville, Texas, man on a charge of injury to a child.
Dill was sentenced to four years in prison after prosecutors accused him of binding his son's hands, feet and mouth with duct tape and then using the looped wire to hit the boy. Dill denied doing anything wrong and, like Peterson, said he disciplined his son similar to how he had been punished as a child.
"People will still discipline their children ... As long as it's appropriate and not excessive, it's not a crime," Wilke said.
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed to this report.
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