REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Scott Peterson, the California husband and father-to-be convicted of killing his pregnant wife in 2002, was back in court Wednesday for a status conference in his bid for a new trial.
Peterson, 48, attended the court hearing via video from San Quentin State Prison, where he is serving a life sentence for the murders of Laci Peterson and the couple’s unborn son, Conner. Laci Peterson, 27, vanished from the couple’s Modesto home on Christmas Eve 2002 while Scott Peterson claimed he was on a fishing trip.
Laci Peterson and Conner’s remains washed up nearly four months later on the shore of San Francisco Bay, a couple of miles from where Peterson said he’d been fishing that day.
Peterson’s status conference took place a year and one day after the California Supreme Court overturned his 2004 death sentence, citing “a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase.”
The court hearing also came as Peterson’s sister-in-law, Janey Peterson, appeared on the “Today” show to proclaim the former fertilizer salesman’s innocence. Janey Peterson, who is married to Scott Peterson’s older brother, has for years said publicly that police, prosecutors and jurors got it wrong.
“There’s evidence that was completely ignored that shows Laci was alive after he left for the day,” she told “Today.”
Simultaneous to the developments in his own case, Scott Peterson’s name has come up in another notorious California case: The May 24, 1996, abduction and presumed murder of Kristin Smart.
Smart, a 19-year-old freshman at California Polytechnic State University, vanished as she walked to her dorm room from an off-campus party. Her body has never been found.
Scott Peterson and his then-girlfriend, Laci Rocha, were both students at Cal Poly at the same time as Smart. Though no evidence ties him to the crime, Peterson’s name has been floated over the years as a potential suspect.
Paul Flores, the classmate who offered to walk the inebriated Smart to her dorm room, was a longtime suspect in the case. Flores, now 44, was arrested in April and charged with her murder.
His 80-year-old father, Ruben Flores, is accused of helping his son cover up the crime for the past 25 years.
Paul Flores’ attorney has said Peterson might be called to testify at his client’s preliminary hearing, which is currently in its fourth week in a San Luis Obispo County courtroom.
Peterson’s attorney, Pat Harris, told the Modesto Bee earlier this month, however, that his client had not been subpoenaed in Flores’ case. No arrangements had been made to transfer him from San Quentin to the county jail in San Luis Obispo, Harris said.
In Peterson’s case, the defense theory is that Laci Peterson, whom authorities believe was killed the night of Dec. 23 or early Dec. 24, was actually seen alive after her husband left to go fishing that morning. Janey Peterson said Wednesday morning that a neighbor testified at the 2004 trial that the couple’s dog, McKenzie, was in their fenced-in yard at 10:15 a.m. the morning Laci Peterson vanished.
The neighborhood mail carrier, who did not testify, said the dog was gone when he arrived 15 minutes later, at 10:30 a.m., she said.
Scott Peterson allegedly left for his fishing trip no later than 9:30 a.m.
The defense has speculated that Laci Peterson either witnessed or confronted some men robbing the house across the street, and that she was abducted and killed by them. Her body was then dumped in the bay, either coincidentally or to frame Scott Peterson, who was fishing nearby.
“If you have an opportunity to get away with murder, you’re going to do it,” Janey Peterson told “Today.”
Two months after Scott Peterson’s death sentence was overturned, the state Supreme Court remanded Peterson’s case back to San Mateo County Superior Court for a judge to determine if Peterson is entitled to a new trial.
In a habeas corpus petition, the former fertilizer salesman’s appellate attorneys argued more than a dozen claims — including allegations that a juror lied during jury selection so she would be seated on the panel. The high court agreed, finding that Juror No. 7, Richelle Nice, “committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings, including but not limited to being the victim of a crime.”
Nice failed to tell the court during the selection process that, four years before the trial, she had been the victim of a crime. She also denied ever having involvement in a lawsuit or participating in a trial as either a party or a witness.
All her answers were false, the defense argued.
“In fact, when Ms. Nice was four and one-half months pregnant in November of 2000, she and her unborn baby were threatened, assaulted and stalked by her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend,” Peterson’s petition states.
Read Scott Peterson’s habeas corpus petition below.
Peterson’s attorneys argued that Nice, still angry over the perceived threat to her own child, sought to get on the jury because she wanted to see their client punished for the death of his son. As evidence of their claim, they pointed to jury deliberations, during which 10 of the jurors had decided against convicting Peterson of first-degree murder in the fetus’ death.
Nice was one of two holdouts for first-degree murder.
Peterson was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder for Conner’s death and first-degree murder for the killing of Laci Peterson. He was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
In reversing his death sentence, the high court determined that 13 prospective jurors had wrongfully been dismissed based on their opposition to the death penalty.
“While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror’s views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” the court ruling states. “Peterson contends that, absent any indication these jurors would be unable to faithfully and impartially apply the law, it was error to remove them from the juror pool.
“On this initial point, Peterson is correct.”
Read the Aug. 24 court ruling overturning Scott Peterson’s death sentence below.
Prosecutors have said they will not seek to reinstate Peterson’s death sentence.
Meanwhile, his family is hopeful that the new trial will be granted and Peterson will be cleared of the murders.
“I’m confident that Scott will never be convicted again,” Janey Peterson said.
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