The state Supreme Court upheld Scott Peterson’s convictions Monday for the 2002 murders of his pregnant wife and her fetus, whose bodies were found in San Francisco Bay four months after they disappeared. But the court overturned the Modesto man’s death sentence because the trial judge had dismissed jurors who opposed capital punishment without asking them whether they could put their views aside.
Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings from 1968 onward, “jurors may not be excused merely for opposition to the death penalty, but only for views rendering them unable to fairly consider imposing that penalty in accordance with their oath,” Justice Leondra Kruger said in the 7-0 decision. “This is the meaning of the guarantee of an impartial jury.”
The justices also ruled unanimously that pretrial publicity in San Mateo County, where the case was transferred from its original site of Stanislaus County, did not deny Peterson a fair trial. Kruger cited the trial judge’s comment that the only way to find a publicity-free venue for the headline-making case “would be to send it to Mars.”
The ruling allows the prosecution to ask a new jury to reinstate Peterson’s death sentence or to allow him to be re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Peterson was convicted in 2004 of killing his eight-months-pregnant wife, Laci, 27, in their Modesto home on Christmas Eve 2002. He was also convicted of murdering their unborn son, Conner. Their remains washed ashore in Richmond and nearby Point Isabel four months later near an area where Peterson said he had gone fishing.
There was no physical evidence of his guilt, but a prosecution witness, Amber Frey, testified that she had been having an affair with Peterson. She had contacted police on Dec. 30 after a friend told her that Peterson, who had never informed her he was married, may have had something to do with his wife’s disappearance.
Peterson, now 47, has denied guilt, and his lawyers, in a separate case awaiting argument in the state Supreme Court, say they have new evidence that will clear him.
“We are grateful for the California Supreme Court’s unanimous recognition that if the state wishes to put someone to death, it must proceed to trial only with a fairly selected jury,” defense attorney Cliff Gardner said. “And while we are disappointed that such a biased jury selection process results in a reversal of only the death sentence, we look forward to the court’s review of the new forensic and eyewitness evidence of innocence.”
The trial was transferred to San Mateo County after pretrial surveys showed that most potential jurors in Stanislaus County believed Peterson was guilty. Then a pretrial survey in San Mateo County found that nearly all prospective jurors said they had been exposed to publicity, and nearly 45% said they thought Peterson was guilty.
His lawyers sought another transfer, but Alfred Delucchi, a Superior Court judge from Alameda County assigned to the case, refused, saying the case was well-known throughout the state. Defense lawyers said surveys in Los Angeles County showed that much less of the public there had made up its mind, and noted the throngs of San Mateo County residents who cheered outside the courthouse when Peterson was convicted, and again when he was sentenced to death.
The state’s high court said Monday that Delucchi was entitled to reject another change of venue.
“The publicity the Peterson trial generated, like the trials of O.J. Simpson, the Manson family, and any number of other so-called trials of the century before them, was intrinsic to the case, not the place,” Kruger said. “There is no rational reason to think coverage would have been any less in Los Angeles County, one of the media capitals of the world.”
She said Delucchi had screened the prospective jurors “rigorously” for bias, and quoted Peterson’s trial lawyer as saying the judge “has exercised Herculean efforts to get a fair panel.”
But Kruger said Delucchi failed to follow legal standards when he dismissed 13 prospective jurors who had stated some degree of opposition to the death penalty in their pretrial questionnaires.
California, like other states with death penalty laws, allows prosecutors to exclude jurors who are so strongly opposed to a death sentence that they could never impose it. The questionnaire also asked prospective jurors whether their views were so strong that they would be unable to vote for a death sentence regardless of the facts, and all 13 answered no.
Delucchi nonetheless removed them without requiring prosecutors to use any of their peremptory challenges, which allow each side to dismiss a certain number of jurors without stating a reason. Kruger said the judge instead should have questioned them during jury selection, and allowed them to remain on the panel, subject to challenge, if they said they could consider all options.
The court rejected defense arguments, however, that removal of the jurors created a pro-prosecution bias that denied Peterson a fair trial.
On another issue, the court upheld prosecutors’ use of a trained dog that was given a sniff of Laci Peterson’s sunglasses at the Berkeley Marina in late December and traced the scent to the dock. The evidence supported their case that her husband had driven his wife’s body from Modesto to the marina, taken the boat into the bay and dumped the body in the water.
Defense lawyers presented evidence that the dog had failed in the past to trace a human scent from a motor vehicle to another location. But Kruger said there was abundant evidence for the jury to credit the prosecution’s version of events.
“Laci’s and Conner’s bodies washed ashore 90 miles from their home but within sight of where Peterson admitted he went fishing the day they disappeared,” Kruger said. She said Peterson never explained why he went fishing in the middle of the day, why he made “repeated surreptitious trips to the marina” in the following weeks, or why he took other actions “that indicated he already knew Laci and Conner were never coming back.”
The Stanislaus County district attorney’s office will review the ruling with Laci Peterson’s family before deciding on its next steps, said John Goold, a spokesman for the office.
Bob Egelko has been a reporter since June 1970. He spent 30 years with the Associated Press, covering news, politics and occasionally sports in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, and legal affairs in San Francisco from 1984 onward. He worked for the San Francisco Examiner for five months in 2000, then joined The Chronicle in November 2000.
His beat includes state and federal courts in California, the Supreme Court and the State Bar. He has a law degree from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and is a member of the bar. Coverage has included the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the appointment of Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court and her removal by the voters, the death penalty in California and the battles over gay rights and same-sex marriage.
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