Peterson must now fight on two fronts – save his life, win appeal
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – The jury that convicted Scott Peterson saw a man with two faces: in public, a loving father-to-be with a steady job and stable home, and in private a cheating husband who yearned for bachelorhood and was willing to kill for that freedom.
Peterson now must find a way to present a unified image and convince jurors that his life is worth sparing and the courts that he deserves a new trial.
He faces life in prison or the death penalty after being convicted Friday of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Laci, and second-degree murder for the killing of her fetus.
But there’s a catch. Peterson can’t reveal too much during the sentencing phase because he must save the option to argue on appeal that he was wrongly convicted or find some legal technicalities worthy of bringing a new trial.
Legal experts said his attorneys likely will focus on two key issues: the removal of jurors during deliberations and the viewing of a boat prosecutors allege Peterson used to dump his wife’s body into San Francisco Bay.
The most important of those will be issues regarding the jury, said former San Francisco prosecutor and trial observer Jim Hammer.
“Those are incredibly carefully scrutinized,” Hammer said. “Kicking someone off the jury is one of the riskiest things you can do in a trial … Two jurors in two days? I’ve never heard of that happening before.”
Both jurors were removed amid deliberations. One was ousted after performing her own research on the case outside of the evidence presented at trial. Another, the jury foreman, was removed a day later. The reasons for his ousting remain sealed by the court.
After Peterson is sentenced, defense investigators are likely to interview panelists, looking for any misconduct that didn’t surface during the trial.
“These jurors are about to go under the microscope,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
The fishing boat presents another point of contention.
Defense attorneys argued it would have been nearly impossible for Peterson to have rolled his wife overboard without capsizing. An engineer from the company that makes the 14-foot Gamefisher testified that the vessel doesn’t capsize easily but acknowledged it wasn’t tested under the same conditions alleged during trial.
Jurors were allowed to view it twice while it was parked inside a garage near the courthouse, including once during deliberations when some jurors climbed inside and rocked it from side to side.
Geragos sought a mistrial after the viewing, claiming jurors violated the law by conducting an experiment. The motion was quickly denied.
“If the court of appeals finds that to be an experiment, that could lead to a reversal,” Hammer said.
While the first part of the trial focused on evidence, the penalty phase, beginning Nov. 22, will be laced with raw emotion. Rules of evidence that prohibit inflaming jurors will be cast aside, paving the way for an all-out drama war.
Testimony will likely include pleas from Peterson’s parents to spare his life, and exhortations from Laci’s parents to deliver the ultimate punishment.
“This part of the trial, it’s a way to allow them to assess from a moral standpoint whether death is appropriate,” said Dane Gillette, the California Attorney General’s top death-penalty enforcer.
Emotional testimony is expected from Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, who will testify about losing a 27-year-old daughter and the grandson, already named Conner, she was waiting for.
“She’s going to get up there and she’s going to break down. Her voice is going to crack,” said Daniel Horowitz, a criminal defense attorney and regular trial observer.
The defense is expected to remind jurors that the 32-year-old former fertilizer salesman has no criminal record or history of violence. Friends and family members will take the stand begging for mercy.
Jury consultant Ed Bronson said Peterson’s defense attorney, Mark Geragos, will try to get inside the jurors’ heads to see if they have any lingering doubt over whether Peterson was a calculated killer who deserves to die.
“Are you so sure that you are willing to kill this man?” Bronson said.
But even if jurors unanimously vote for death, Peterson might not be executed for decades, if ever. California’s death row has grown to house 650 condemned men and women since the state brought back capital punishment in 1978. In all that time, only 10 executions have been carried out.
The condemned wait years before they are appointed an attorney for their first and mandatory appeal to the California Supreme Court, the starting point of a maze of state and federal appeals.
“You’re more likely to die of natural causes on death row than be executed,” Levenson said.
The judge said he expects the jury to begin deliberating Peterson’s sentence by Nov 30. The jury then will be sequestered again while deciding Peterson’s fate. The trial began June 1.
Regardless of any appeals, expected motions for a new trial or the ultimate sentence, Peterson must prepare himself for life in prison.
“It will be a hard time for him,” Levenson said. “He’s going to have to learn how to survive. As far as the inmates are concerned, he’s a wife killer and a baby killer.”
Editors: Associated Press Staff Writer David Kravets contributed to this story.