Guilty: Jury next to decide if he'll be executed

November 13, 2004 

  • Seat lottery

    Eighty-seven people tried their luck at Friday's 8 a.m. lottery for public seats in the courtroom. The daily drawing produced 27 winners who would witness a moment in legal history a little more than five hours later.


    Jury arrives

    After Thursday's day off for Veterans Day, jurors showed up Friday morning looking refreshed. First off the shuttle bus from their hotel was a smiling Juror No. 5, who was placed on the jury Wednesday when the panel's first foreman was dismissed. Last off the bus was the jury's new foreman, Juror No. 6, wearing jeans and his usual dark sunglasses and carrying a green apple. Perhaps the most colorful juror, who moved from being an alternate to regular juror Tuesday when another panelist was removed, wore bright red shoes -- matching her shirt and the top half of her long, dyed hair.


    It's in the eyes

    One hour before the verdict was read, prosecutor Birgit Fladager's eyes seemed to be red as she waited in a corridor near the courthouse's basement cafe. Also appearing a bit emotional, just after the verdict was announced, was Modesto police Detective Craig Grogan -- whose testimony when questioned by Fladager marked a turning point in the trial, some analysts said.


    Detective's here

    Modesto police Detective Al Brocchini, who was pilloried by defense attorney Mark Geragos for several missteps in the investigation, entered the courtroom 21 minutes before the verdict was read. But he and another detective left a minute after.


    Judge in hall

    Twelve minutes before the verdict, Judge Alfred Delucchi stood in a private hallway between the courtroom and his judge's chamber, wearing a dark blue sweater vest and tie. He was clad in a judge's robe when he emerged.


    Peterson smiles

    Scott Peterson, wearing a navy-blue suit, swaggered slightly and smiled broadly when he entered the courtroom moments before the six-woman, six-man jury and three alternates filed in. Peterson mouthed a greeting to his brother, seated in the front row of the audience.


    Those present

    A rundown of people spotted in the courtroom when the decision was announced:

    Scott Peterson's supporters: mother, Jackie; brother Joe and sister-in- law Janey; several friends; co-defense counsel Pat Harris. The defendant's father, Lee Peterson, who attended nearly every day of the trial, was not present. Neither was lead defense attorney Mark Geragos.

    Laci Peterson's supporters: father, Dennis Rocha; mother and her longtime companion, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski; brother, Brent Rocha and his wife, Rose; sister, Amy Rocha; several relatives; close friends Rene Tomlinson, Stacey Boyers, Renee Garza and Lori Ellsworth; prosecutors Rick Distaso, Dave Harris and Birgit Fladager; Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton; Distaso's wife, Megan; and Sharon Rocha's civil attorney, Adam Stewart.

    Nearly 20 uniformed bailiffs and plain-clothes law enforcement officers stood throughout the crowded room.


    Frey not there

    Amber Frey, the former lover of Scott Peterson who testified in his murder trial, will keep quiet in the wake of his conviction but is certain to be emotionally unsettled, her father said Friday. Ron Frey said he was sure Amber Frey was in Fresno on Friday, but he had not spoken to her about the verdict. "She will be upset. Everybody close to the case is upset," said Ron Frey, a Fresno general contractor. "You know the man is guilty, but it's a pretty emotional thing after two years of being on edge and not knowing what's going to happen." Amber Frey, 29, testified as a prosecution witness in Peterson's trial this summer, and the jury heard tapes of his phone conversations with her. As for the jury's verdict, Ron Frey said, "Oh, it's the only way the evidence pointed to. They did right."


    Please, stand

    There was standing room only in tension-filled Courtroom 2M just before the verdict was read. Among several people finding themselves without seats were a People magazine reporter, a numerology disciple who has attended most days of the trial as a member of the public, and Kim Petersen of the Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation.


    Gripping

    Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton and attorney Gloria Allred clasped hands for several moments in a courtroom aisle just after bailiffs escorted Peterson away.


    Packed hallway

    A crowd of about 140 reporters and onlookers lined the courthouse hallway, waiting for family members to emerge from the courtroom.


    Mother leaves

    A smattering of applause broke out in the hallway when Gwen Kemple, a cousin of Laci Peterson's mother, hugged another extended family member. Blocked by two sheriff's deputies, the crowd waved and shouted "Sharon! Sharon!" as Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, was led down a side hallway to a stairwell.


    Call to Frey

    Upon emerging from the courtroom, Allred -- who represents Peterson's former lover, Amber Frey -- waded through a crowd of onlookers and found a more-or-less quiet spot on the second floor of the courtroom. She dialed a number on her cell phone but hung up without speaking. She then told The Bee she had hoped to be the first to reach Frey with news of the verdict. "I just tried, but the call failed," Allred said.


    To tell the tooth

    Judge Alfred Delucchi appeared in good spirits as he left the courthouse through an underground walkway, escorted by two bailiffs. "Here's a scoop," he told a reporter. "I broke my tooth eating an apple." The judge then displayed a cracked front tooth he said he suffered during the lunch break before the verdict was announced.


    Writer beams

    Outside the courthouse, Aphrodite Jones, a true-crime writer working on a book about the trial, beamed as she held up an "extra" edition of the Redwood City Daily News headlined "GUILTY," mugging for cameras and onlookers.

  • The bustle of daily life all but stopped at 1:10 p.m. Friday.

    A tension crept into restaurants, offices and homes throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley moments before a court clerk read the verdict in the Scott Peterson double-murder trial.

    Waitresses stopped waiting on tables, customers abruptly ended conversations, and office work came to a halt as people turned up the volume on their TV sets.

    "We the jury in the above-entitled cause find the defendant Scott Lee Peterson guilty of the crime of the murder of Laci Denise Peterson …"

    With those words, the tension gave way to joyous celebrations that broke out spontaneously around the area. Most everyone, it appeared, wanted Peterson to be found guilty.

    "They sound like they're cheering at a football game," said Mike Nelson, owner of Mike's Roadhouse in north Modesto, after screams and applause erupted throughout the room. It was an odd moment for Nelson, who said Laci and her mother were customers at his restaurant.

    "She was just a very likable person," he said. "What a personality. What a smile. What a tragedy. That's all I can really say."

    At Kelley Brothers Brewery Co. and Restaurant in Manteca, about 20 people watched TV screens mounted on the walls. When the verdict came in, server Adrianne Bretao, 29, pumped her fist in the air and said, "Yes!"

    "I'm glad justice was served," Bretao said. "I hope this sets a precedent for future cases involving pregnant women who are murdered."

    Diners felt the same.

    "It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," said Bill Hotaling, 50, a lumber salesman from Pleasanton. "We have kids not much younger than (Laci) was."

    "It's awesome," said his wife, Dawn, a 42-year-old school secretary. "We've been following this from the start. There were just too many things that showed he's guilty. He's a creepy guy."

    Melanie Wagner, 36, a school teacher from Escalon, used even stronger words. "They should hang Scott Peterson," Wagner said. "He's a pig. He's getting what he deserved."

    Most people seem pleased

    That sentiment was shared by many who had gathered at Turlock's Red Robin restaurant, where all 10 TV sets were turned to the news. Moments later, cheers broke out along with "yeah" and "all right."

    "I'm not surprised," said Lori Harless of Denair, between phone calls about the verdict. "I just had a gut feeling."

    Harless, who said she followed the trial closely, was happy with the outcome.

    "I think they should fry him," she said.

    "I'm shocked," said Paula Browning of Riverbank, who was dining with Harless. "I didn't think they were going to convict him."

    Harless' husband, Richard, said he also had been worried Peterson would be acquitted.

    "Evidence doesn't seem to matter anymore," he said, citing the O.J. Simpson verdict as an example. "I was afraid that without fingerprints around her neck they wouldn't be able to convict him. You almost need video cameras (of the crime) since Rodney King to convict anybody."

    "You could just tell he was guilty," said Robert DeLa Rosa of Fresno, who was having a beer with his friend, Simon Lopez of Turlock.

    "Either way it went, I have trust in the judicial system," Lopez said. "It looked bad for him being in the same area where the bodies turned up."

    About 30 customers who were crowded around four TVs at Chili's Restaurant in Modesto cheered and applauded just after the court clerk read the word "guilty." They cheered again moments later when she announced the charge was in the first degree.

    Kissten Jacobs, 25, of Modesto stood in the restaurant's waiting area several minutes after the verdict was announced, long after she had finished her meal.

    "I'm shocked," Jacobs said. "I'm still taking it all in. I'm sad for both families."

    Mercedes Wallace, 38, of Modesto also watched the verdict at Chili's. Wallace, who said she used to work with Sharon Rocha, said she was relieved at the jury's decision and hoped it might help bring some closure to Laci's family.

    "I was afraid he was going to get away with it," Wallace said. "I'm glad he didn't."

    Wallace and her friends took an extended lunch break from work, searching awhile before finding a restaurant that had TVs.

    Kim Clardy, 38, of Turlock also said she was happy with the outcome. "I'm just thankful he was found guilty," Clardy said. "There were just too many things pointing to him and no other suspects."

    Hot dog man listens in

    On the sidewalk outside the Stanislaus County Courthouse, hot dog cart owner Dave Benitez, 67, of Modesto listened to reports of the verdict on a portable radio. The area -- swarmed with media and onlookers during the early portion of the Peterson case -- was nearly deserted when the verdict came in.

    "A few people came over here to buy a hot dog and listen (to the radio)," he said, but business was slower than usual.

    Roughly a dozen people gathered in the bar at Tresetti's World Caffe in downtown Modesto to hear the verdict. As the clerk began reading it, the noise of talking and eating came to a stop as people leaned toward the TV.

    "Oh, my gosh!" cried Joanne Frank, 53, of Sacramento, as the verdict was read. The Tresetti's crowd answered the decision with brief cheers, followed by silence as people tuned in to hear more. Watchers there had seemed on edge before the verdict, but their reaction was somewhat subdued.

    "I thought there would be people clapping and cheering," Frank said. She and her lunch mate, Rachael Avery, 27, of Modesto were pleased with the verdict.

    "I'm relieved that the justice system is working," Avery said.

    Michael Tozzi, the Stanislaus Superior Court administrator, came to Tresetti's for lunch and wound up staying for the verdict.

    "The jury spoke," he said afterward. "I wouldn't have been surprised either way. You wait, and the jury is there and we weren't; they heard (evidence) we didn't. Even if it had gone the other way, the system works."

    With that, Tozzi walked out the door and headed back to work as the city's bustle returned.

    Bee staff writers Rosalio Ahumada, Mike Conway, Blair Craddock, Chris Togneri and Amy White contributed to this report.

  • The Laci Peterson case had attracted swarms of TV cameras and pundits almost from the beginning. So the spotlight figured to be brighter than ever for Friday's verdict.

    And it was.

    Cable heavyweights CNN, Fox News and Court TV jumped in with everything they had, beginning continuous coverage just after 11 a.m. when word came that a verdict had been reached.

    Among Sacramento's TV outlets, only KCRA Channel 3 stayed with the story from the first bulletin until 2:15 p.m., an hour after the verdict's reading.

    The news broke during KXTV Channel 10's midday news program; the program ended at noon, and a soap opera came on.

    KOVR Channel 13 stayed with a soap until the noon news, then showed another soap opera at 12:30 p.m.

    Both came back at 1 p.m. to deliver live audio of the verdict's reading.

    Channel 3, meanwhile, had been on the air with professors from the McGeorge School of Law, and people at capital malls and restaurants.

    In the courtroom, Edie Lambert used her laptop computer to send instant messages -- and KCRA put them on television. She was among the first to tell the world that a juror had smiled and nodded reassuringly at Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mother.

    Outside the courthouse, as tension grew in advance of the verdict's reading, a CNN analyst worried about public despair and anger in the event of an acquittal.

    A Fox expert predicted a not-guilty verdict.

    Justin Falconer, removed from the jury in the trial's fourth week, also predicted not guilty. The original Juror No. 5 uttered what sounded like famous last words in a bad movie: "Scott Peterson was no criminal mastermind. He had no record. If he were guilty, there would be some evidence."

    After the verdict, though, Falconer, like some other pundits, went into full retreat.

    "I'm sure the jury reached the right verdict," Falconer said. "They saw everything, all the evidence."

    After the fact, many of the networks' legal analysts suddenly found it clear all along that the jury didn't buy Mark Geragos' defense strategy.

    Before the verdict, Court TV's legal panel praised the prosecution, particularly Rick Distaso's closing arguments.

    Fox experts dismissed the popular notion that there needed to be a "CSI" or "Law and Order" moment when direct evidence fingered a killer. "When there's direct evidence, that's when you get a plea bargain," Greta Van Susteren said. "The circumstantial cases go to trial."

    Experts explained on Fox and Court TV that "circumstantial" does not mean weak; rather, they said, it means that the prosecution must tell a compelling story.

    The strongest medicine after the verdict came on Fox, where Peterson was no longer referred to by name. He became "that monster."

    On the evening news, ABC, CBS and NBC put the verdict in fourth position behind Yasser Arafat, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's U.S. visit and the war in Iraq. Only CBS showed videotape shot Friday in Modesto; the scene showed a crowd cheering the verdict as relayed by television.

    Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at 578-2311 or rhoskins@modbee.com.

  • REDWOOD CITY -- Buzz that a verdict was coming traveled fast and by 1 p.m. hundreds of people from near and far had gathered in front of the San Mateo County Courthouse to hear the news.

    They came out of restaurants, left their desks and stopped their errands.

    "It's like rubberneckers watching a car crash," said Mark Davies, 52 of Redwood City, one of the few to express doubt about whether Peterson received a fair trial.

    Many in the crowd talked on cell phones, ready to let friends or loved ones know the verdict in the five-month trial.

    Reese Wilder, 63, of Redwood City said she had watched the trial religiously. She staked out a spot in front of the courthouse a half-hour before the verdict was to be read.

    "I was shaking like a leaf," said Wilder, who believed Peterson was guilty. When the verdict was announced, she said, "I could hardly speak."

    Not so for many in the crowd. People cheered. They clapped. They jumped for joy.

    "Yeah!" said 57-year-old Howard Kutzly, clapping loudly and then hushing those around him so he could hear the rest of the verdict on his headphones.

    "Justice, finally," he shouted.

    Kutzly lives a few blocks away. When the announcement of an imminent verdict interrupted his TV movie, he ran down to the courthouse.

    "I might as well," he said. "It's history."

    Like an excited crowd at the Oscars, people burst into hoots and hollers when anyone emerged from the courthouse, even if they didn't know who the people were.

    David and Brett Miller brought four of their seven children to witness the spectacle.

    "I don't know if it's a civic lesson, but it's certainly a lesson in how much influence the media has," David Miller said. "We live in this city, and we were interested. We were talking about the possibilities -- 30 years, death or walking away. It was a horrific crime -- a pretty young lady, a small town, middle-class."

    Some spectators arrived from Pacifica, San Jose and Davis.

    "I didn't want to hear the verdict alone," explained Kaaren Miller, 52, of Pacifica, who said she followed the trial closely. "I wanted to be around people who thought, if he was found guilty, justice was served."

    Claire Dobransky, 21, and her roommate Jennie Nicol, also 21, came from Davis. "It's Laci's day," Dobransky said. "It's a good day."

    Scott Peterson supporters seemed scarce in the crowd, though some expressed sympathy for his family.

    Hours after the verdict, the crowd had thinned. As TV cameras captured the scene, some of the lingerers held up special Peterson editions produced by local newspapers.

    Erica Kleebauer, 25, who works nearby and ate her burrito lunch in the courthouse area, hoped for a glimpse of Laci Peterson's family.

    "So I could give them two thumbs up, a congratulations or something," she said.

    Bee staff writer Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at 578-2385 or ejohnson@modbee.com.

    Bee columnist Jeff Jardine and staff writer Garth Stapley contributed to this report.

  • It was Christmas Eve 2002, and a cold fog hung in the air above Covena Avenue.

    As midnight approached, warm scenes played out in homes throughout Modesto's La Loma neighborhood: Parents tiptoed around, putting out presents in the late-night crush; children slept in their beds, having drifted off wondering what wonderful gifts the morning would bring.

    But for a small group of people gathered in front of Scott and Laci Peterson's home, the night couldn't have been any colder. They had walked through nearby Dry Creek Regional Park, some in pairs, others alone, all of them calling for Laci.

    And when they had run out of places to look, they stood together in front of the Petersons' home, unsure whether to remain hopeful or fear the worst.

    "It just wasn't right," said Rene Tomlinson, one of Laci's close friends. "This was not a sad place. To be sad at her house, it just wasn't right."

    The search for Laci Peterson, which was to evolve into arguably the largest effort of its kind in Modesto's history, had begun a few hours earlier that night after Scott Peterson called friends and relatives, asking if anyone had seen his wife. Ron Grantski, longtime companion of Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, called police about 6 p.m. and reported her missing.

    During the early days of the case, any time someone voiced suspicion about Scott Peterson, Laci's family and friends defended her husband. But that resolve slowly eroded over the following weeks.

    The day after Christmas, police erected a cordon of yellow crime-scene tape around the Petersons' home and began a two-day search there. The next day, investigators searched Scott Peterson's warehouse and made their first trip to the Berkeley Marina to investigate his story that he had been on a fishing trip at the time his wife disappeared.

    Peterson, who had retained criminal defense attorney Kirk McAllister of Modesto, attended the first couple of police news conferences with his and Laci's families. But at a news conference several days after Christmas, he left abruptly, apparently upset that reporters were questioning his alibi.

    The public began to embrace the story, which had all the elements of a mystery and a tragedy: a young, pregnant woman going missing on Christmas Eve. Hundreds of volunteers posted fliers around town, helping with extensive daily searches for some sign of her. Just four days after Laci was reported missing, the reward fund for her safe return had soared to $500,000.

    After a few days of local newspaper and TV coverage, the story began attracting large-scale media attention; Bay Area and national news organizations started giving the case prime-time coverage.

    Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden conducted interviews that first week with "Good Morning America," "Today," and "The Early Show." CNN regularly cut away from scheduled programming to show the Police Department's news conferences live. Internet forums and talk shows brimmed with wild speculation about what had happened to Laci.

    More and more, the press and public began to scrutinize Peterson's behavior, with many concluding that he did not appear to resemble a grieving husband.

    On Jan. 15, 2003, a close relative of Laci told The Bee that police detectives had disclosed to them that Scott had been having an affair with a Fresno woman later identified as Amber Frey. Police showed family members pictures of Peterson and Frey together at a party, and later everyone would learn Laci attended a holiday party alone that night.

    The next day, Laci's friends and family did not open the volunteer search center that had operated out of the Red Lion Hotel as many of them began to conclude that Peterson was responsible for his wife's disappearance. Laci's family members began publicly asking him to take a lie detector test.

    As the media glare intensified, Peterson conducted his first interview, telling a TV reporter, "Make me the biggest villain if you want to, as long as it keeps her picture in the press."

    Before that, Peterson's only public statement had been a message written in black marker that hung in the volunteer center: "Volunteers: As I see every person come through this door, or out searching, I tell Laci about them, looking for her. Early this morning I felt she could hear me. She thanks you. … Laci's husband."

    Amber Frey shows up

    On Jan. 24, a month after Laci was reported missing, Frey appeared at an emotional news conference to disclose that she had had a romantic relationship with Peterson, saying he told her he was not married when they met two months earlier.

    Earlier that day, the Rochas had held their own news conference. It ended emotionally as Laci's mother approached a mass of microphones wearing the unmistakable signs of heartache and grief.

    "I love my daughter so much," Sharon Rocha said. "I miss everything about her. Someone has taken all of this away from me and everyone else who loved her. There are no words that could possibly describe the ache in my heart and the emptiness in my life."

    Two days later, Peterson conducted several televised interviews at his home, addressing numerous allegations and rumors surrounding his involvement in his wife's disappearance. More than a dozen TV trucks set up camp near the Peterson home on a day that also saw the release of Scott's videotaped interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America."

    During the interview, Peterson denied killing Laci or having anything to do with her disappearance. He described his marriage as "glorious," even though he admitted to being unfaithful. "We took care of each other very well," he said. "She was amazing. She is amazing."

    After those interviews, Peterson mostly kept out of sight, spending much of his time with family in San Diego. Laci's due date passed in mid-February. Her sister and some of Laci's friends marked the occasion with a vigil just after sunset at East La Loma Park.

    On Feb. 18, detectives returned to the Peterson home and hauled away about 100 items of evidence in their second search of the residence.

    Two weeks later, police for the first time said they believed Laci was the victim of a homicide. During the last days of February and March, new information about the case was sparse; the story all but disappeared as people tuned in to coverage of the war in Iraq.

    But interest spiked again the morning of April 14 when news agencies reported that a woman walking her dog at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline had found a woman's body in marshy wetlands. The discovery came a day after someone else found a baby boy's body about a mile away in south Richmond, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

    While the state crime lab was trying to determine the identities of the bodies, police began constant surveillance of Peterson in the San Diego area. Modesto investigators obtained a warrant April 17 for his arrest, and state agents arrested him the next day near Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla.

    TV coverage skyrockets

    Sporting a full goatee and hair that had been dyed a lighter shade, he was driven back to the Stanislaus County Jail in Modesto, where a large crowd waiting outside cheered as he arrived to be booked on two counts of murder. Fox News coverage that day was the most-watched single program on cable, at just more than 5 million viewers.

    On April 21, Peterson pleaded not guilty to the charges during his arraignment. That same day, the Rocha family held its first news conference since learning that Laci's body had been found. As her family sobbed behind her, Laci's mother spoke out to her daughter's killer in anger and passion, but stopped short of naming her son-in-law as that person.

    "Laci and her unborn child did not deserve to die," Rocha said. "They certainly did not deserve to be dumped in the bay and sent to a watery grave as though their lives were meaningless. I literally get sick to my stomach when I allow myself to think about what may have happened to them. No parent should ever have to think about the way their child was murdered."

    On May 2, a week after District Attorney James Brazelton said his office would seek the death penalty for Peterson, defense attorney Mark Geragos officially took over as Peterson's lawyer.

    Two days later, an estimated 3,000 people filled First Baptist Church in Modesto for Laci's memorial service, which was held on what would have been her 28th birthday. The next day, Geragos said he not only would prove his client's innocence, but also would find who had killed Laci. Two months later, Geragos would say, in court documents, that evidence "totally exonerates" Peterson and would tip off the true killers if made public.

    On May 19, Frey hired attorney Gloria Allred, and Frey also said she was prepared to testify against Peterson at his trial. Three weeks later, Judge Al Girolami issued a gag order to limit public statements by people associated with the case.

    In late August, about 250 people attended the private burial of Laci and Conner, who were laid to rest in a single casket at Burwood Cemetery in Escalon after a service at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto.

    Public interest in the case reached a crescendo again as the preliminary hearing drew closer, with people eager to replace talk-show speculation with knowledge of evidence police had uncovered but kept under wraps because of the gag order.

    The media horde turned a dusty dirt lot at 11th and I streets in downtown Modesto into a bustling enclave of mobile office trailers, satellite trucks and portable generators. Thousands of feet of cable snaked through the dust to a row of 28 media tents set up along 11th Street in front of the courthouse. TV crews from stations as far away as Japan came to Modesto to cover the hearing that, after four delays, finally was set to begin.

    The preliminary hearing -- which would last 12 days -- started Oct. 29 with the first of two days of testimony from FBI DNA expert Constance L. Fisher, who said a hair found in pliers in Peterson's fishing boat could not have been his but could have come from Laci.

    The hair in the pliers was the first of many revelations that reached the public for the first time. But as the hearing wore on, no smoking gun emerged and it became clear that the case hinged on circumstantial evidence.

    The hearing ended with almost as many questions as when it began. Prosecutors didn't answer how, where or why they believed Laci was killed. They didn't show how or when her body found its way to the chilly waters of the bay. The witness who could provide a motive -- Peterson's girlfriend at the time his wife disappeared -- didn't take the stand. Still, prosecutors pummeled Peterson's credibility and raised questions about his alibi.

    Prosecutors disclosed that Peterson exchanged 241 cell phone calls with Frey in a 93-day period starting five weeks before his pregnant wife disappeared. The calls included seven on Christmas Day and 16 the next day, after no calls on Christmas Eve -- the day police believe he dumped his wife's body in the bay.

    An investigator also testified that Scott had $15,000 cash and a camp stove, water purifier, fishing pole and other gear with him when he was arrested north of San Diego.

    Geragos goes to work

    Geragos countered by systematically questioning each point brought up by prosecutors, and also raised the prospect that Laci's baby, Conner, was born before he was killed. If he could prove that allegation, it could cast serious doubt on whether Scott had been involved in the disappearance and deaths of his wife and their son.

    The preliminary hearing drew more than 100 journalists and crews from all sorts of media -- mainstream and otherwise. Writers from People magazine, the National Enquirer and many more publications attended every session, and talk shows such as Fox's "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" and CNN's "Larry King Live" rarely missed a day of analysis.

    The hearing ended with Girolami ordering Peterson to answer to the charges, paving the way for a trial. On Dec. 3, Peterson again pleaded not guilty to murder charges. "That's correct, your honor," Peterson told Girolami. "I am innocent." Girolami scheduled a Jan. 26, 2004, jury trial, but no one expected it to begin that soon.

    On Dec. 15, Geragos, citing a "lynch-mob atmosphere" and "poisonous" news coverage in Stanislaus County, filed a motion to have the trial moved. Four days later, Laci's mother filed two lawsuits against Scott, suing him for more than $5 million in the deaths of his wife and their unborn son.

    On Jan. 20, 2004, Girolami ordered the trial moved to San Mateo County. The trial was to take place in Redwood City with Judge Alfred Delucchi set to preside. Jury selection began March 4 with 200 prospective jurors filling out 23-page questionnaires that contained 116 questions, ranging from their views on the death penalty to whether they knew anybody in law enforcement to what bumper stickers were on their cars.

    On April 1, as jury selection continued, Rocha and Grantski traveled to Washington to be on hand for a ceremony where President Bush signed "Laci and Conner's law," which makes killing a fetus a distinct federal crime. The law's passage marked a poignant triumph for Rocha and Grantski, who lobbied extensively on the bill's behalf.

    'A common-sense case'

    After two months of legal maneuvering, the list of more than 1,600 people screened as prospective jurors was narrowed to 76 finalists. In late May, the pool was reduced to 12 jurors and six alternates, setting the stage for the trial to begin.

    On June 1, prosecutor Rick Distaso gave an opening statement punctuated by grisly photographs of Laci and Conner Peterson's remains, telling jurors that Peterson led a calculated double life before and after the murders of his pregnant wife and unborn son.

    "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a common-sense case," Distaso said, offering a multitude of revelations that included a recording of Peterson calling his lover 10 minutes before the scheduled start of a candlelight vigil for his missing wife. As Distaso spoke, an army of reporters hung on his every word.

    The next day, in a two-hour opening argument, Geragos ripped into the prosecution for its lack of evidence. Geragos told jurors his client had an affair, but that he had nothing to do with his wife's murder. Geragos also said forensic evidence would show that Scott and Laci's son was born alive sometime after Christmas Eve 2002.

    "The fact of the matter is that this is a murder case and there has to be evidence," Geragos said. "The evidence is going to show clearly, beyond any doubt, that not only was Scott not guilty, but stone-cold innocent."

    The case got moving in June, a month loaded with revelations. Rocha testified that her daughter apparently was aware of the first of her husband's two affairs early in her marriage. In a videotaped police interview, Peterson said the couple had no marital problems. In a nationally televised interview that appeared weeks later, Peterson said he told police "immediately" about the affair with Frey.

    Juror No. 5, Justin Falconer, was removed from the case after a TV camera captured him talking briefly with Laci's brother. Frey's best friend, Shawn Sibley, testified that Peterson said he was sick of dating "bimbos with no brains" and was seeking a soulmate.

    Modesto police Detective Al Brocchini, who damaged Peterson's credibility further and then came under constant fire from Geragos, testified that he omitted from a police report a paragraph damaging to the prosecution theory of the case, but said the information was in an earlier report.

    In July, Detective Dodge Hendee testified that a field of concrete residue at Peterson's warehouse contained up to five "voided areas," suggesting that Peterson made five anchors to help sink his wife's body in the bay. One anchor was found in Peterson's boat, but no others were found during exhaustive searches of the bay that turned up items as small as a beer can.

    Two hair fragments from pliers in Peterson's boat probably came from different hairs, a prosecution expert testified. That undermined the prosecution argument that a strand of Laci's hair broke in an evidence envelope, while bolstering Geragos' contention that police mishandled evidence. Graphic testimony about the April 2003 discovery of Conner and Laci's remains left some jurors shaken, and drove her family from the courtroom.

    Frey tapes calls

    In August, Frey testified that Peterson told her he had "lost" his wife weeks before she disappeared and that he wooed Frey with champagne, roses, cooking and attention to her toddler.

    Peterson told Frey he was "longing to hold onto" her, but repeatedly denied involvement in his wife's disappearance in hours of calls Frey secretly taped for police. In phone calls to Frey, Peterson pretended to be in Paris watching New Year's fireworks near the Eiffel Tower and drinking in a bar with pals. In reality, he was about to attend a vigil in Modesto for his missing wife.

    In September, experts testified that none of Laci's blood or other bodily fluids was found in the couple's home or her husband's truck, warehouse or boat. Conner was not born vaginally or delivered via standard Caesarean section, a pathologist testified, but acknowledged that he could not rule out live birth.

    Prosecutors hinted that Peterson might have suffocated his wife with a pillow while she got undressed the night of Dec. 23, 2002. But police didn't seize most of the couple's bed linens until almost two months later, a detective said.

    Prosecutor provides drama

    As the five-month trial wound down in October, Charles March, a defense obstetrician, melted down on the stand, asking a prosecutor to "cut me slack" when cross-examined about his finding that Conner had been born at least five days after his mother was reported missing.

    On Oct. 26, after putting together a presentation that stretched over six days, Peterson's defense team abruptly rested its case without calling two scheduled witnesses, surprising legal observers who had expected a more dramatic finish.

    Five days later, it was Distaso who provided the drama in a passionate closing argument in which he blasted Peterson as a calculating killer who murdered his pregnant wife to further a fantasy life of money, travel and women. Distaso -- criticized early on by pundits for a rambling, disjointed presentation -- wrapped five months of testimony from 184 witnesses into an articulate and spirited denunciation of Peterson.

    The next day, Geragos began his closing argument by walking up to his client and asking jurors, "Do you all hate him?" Geragos said Distaso's argument amounted to 12 minutes of authorities' theories followed by four hours of "this guy's the biggest jerk that ever walked the face of the Earth … and you should hate him, hate him, hate him. …

    "Nobody's going to nominate Scott Peterson as husband of the year," Geragos acknowledged. "But the fact of the matter is, (authorities) have not proved that Scott Peterson did anything except lie."

    The case was handed over to the jury on the afternoon of Nov. 3. Deliberations continued for a week before signs of trouble emerged.

    Frances Gorman, juror No. 7, was replaced Nov. 9, amid signs of misconduct. On Nov. 10, Gregory Charles Jackson, the jury foreman, was dismissed.

    With no deliberations on Veterans Day, the jury came back with a verdict Nov. 12.

    Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder in his wife's death and second-degree murder in the death of their unborn son.

    The penalty phase is to begin Nov. 22. Jurors will decide whether Peterson receives the death penalty.

    Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at 578-2331 or tphillips@modbee.com.

  • REDWOOD CITY -- For the past year, Mark Geragos represented a study in cockiness, arrogance and showmanship.

    This big-city lawyer smirked at Stanislaus County prosecutors as they prepared to try Scott Peterson for murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son.

    He mocked the Modesto police investigation, saying detectives focused so quickly on Peterson that they missed the real killers.

    He scoffed during jury selection, claiming it didn't matter whether a juror would vote for the death penalty. The prosecution's case, Geragos said, was so weak it would never reach the penalty phase.

    Now, Geragos -- so confident, so full of swagger -- must go before the same jurors who proclaimed his client a killer and beg them to spare Peterson's life.

    He must look into the faces of those who know that Peterson told lie after lie to his girlfriend, and to investigators.

    He must try to explain why his client refuses to take responsibility for his actions, acting as if the investigation into his wife's disappearance and death were an imposition on his golf game.

    Finally, Geragos must look at 12 people who, by virtue of their verdict, said they didn't believe him.

    And why should they?

    He came through with none of the promises he made in June, when he claimed he would destroy the prosecution's case.

    The end came so suddenly Friday that Geragos couldn't get to Redwood City from Los Angeles in time for the verdict -- which you can bet was not lost on the jury.

    Peterson and Geragos lost so badly, law Professor Robert Talbot said, that he's not sure if Geragos shouldn't turn the next stage over to co-counsel Pat Harris or someone else.

    "Would you want Geragos arguing for you in the penalty phase?" asked Talbot, who teaches at the University of San Francisco. "Obviously, the jury didn't buy his act at all."

    Former San Mateo County prosecutor Chuck Smith disagreed.

    "Mark should do it and will do it," Smith said. "He has to try to save his client's life."

    Geragos' credibility is damaged enough by the conviction, Smith said. The penalty phase won't affect him.

    "He'll introduce some brutally emotional testimony from Peterson's mother, brother, sister and friends," Smith said. "Mark won't ask any questions of the prosecution's witnesses. It will be all victim input, the Rocha family telling us about Laci. 'Here's what we lost.'"

    Geragos can only point to the fact that, until convicted of these murders, Peterson had no criminal past.

    "Anything that shows he's a good guy, and right now, that's going to be pretty tough to do," Talbot said. "You'd try to tout abuse as a child, or a mental disorder. But this guy had a happy life. He played golf and went fishing."

    All of this leaves Geragos with no doubt the toughest argument of his career.

    The jury's in. His client is a murderer whose own life rests in their hands.

    The swagger, the smugness -- that won't play well this time around.

    Bee local columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

  • Sally Wallace and Gail Claus-Nicholas dashed over to Scott and Laci Peterson's gray-green bungalow as soon as news of an impending verdict broke.

    Arriving a little after noon, they were the first of a wave of people to converge on the Covena Avenue home the Petersons once shared.

    They lit a candle and placed it at the garden gate, then cranked up the volume of their silver PT Cruiser's radio.

    The two longtime friends then clutched each other's hands as they listened to a court clerk declaring Scott Peterson guilty of murdering his wife and their unborn child.

    "Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!" Claus-Nicholas whispered as though stifling a shout in a library, her eyes watering.

    Others watched coverage of the verdict on television in the quiet of their living rooms.

    One Covena Avenue resident who asked to remain anonymous said she "hoped and prayed" Peterson would be found guilty as she stared intently at her TV. When she heard "guilty of murder," she clapped her hands softly, pressed her palms together, and smiled.

    Within minutes, dozens of people poured onto Covena Avenue in Modesto's La Loma neighborhood, by foot and car.

    Three police officers cordoned off the Peterson front yard. Still, gifts trickled onto the remaining strip of lawn. The slowly forming shrine of candles and flowers provoked a sense of déjà vu for neighbors who had watched this happen in April 2003, shortly after the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, washed up along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

    Susan Medina, who lives across the street, pleaded with an officer to stop the barrage of visitors. Since Peterson's disappearance, cars have circled her block nonstop she said.

    Last summer, Medina built a high-walled front courtyard that spared her the view of strange cars trolling by day and night.

    Most of those who converged on Covena Avenue on Friday believed Peterson, who faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, is getting what he deserves.

    They echoed similar reasons for why they're convinced Peterson killed his pregnant wife:

    • His fishing trip to the bay on Christmas Eve.
    • His phone conversations with girlfriend Amber Frey during a candlelight vigil for Laci.
    • His sudden move to San Diego, where he dyed his hair blond and carried $15,000 in cash when he was arrested in April 2003.
    • Standoffish, strange behavior toward neighbors after his wife's disappearance.

    "Not the grieving husband," asserted Marie-Merced Thompson, a La Loma neighbor who was visiting the Peterson home with her daughter on Friday. "It creeped us out."

    She and daughter Romy Thompson recalled seeing Scott Peterson, after his wife had been declared missing, driving his white truck, always on his cell phone. They said he'd slow down and smile, seeming flirtatious.

    Claudia Olson, another neighbor, was "very pleased" with the verdict.

    She recalled Scott Peterson and his brother-in-law, Brent Rocha, coming to her door on Christmas Eve looking for Laci. Rocha did all the talking, while Scott Peterson hung back, arms folded, leaning against a brick column on her front stoop, Olson said.

    "He just looked guilty," she said.

    Several others said they had worried that, like the way they saw it in the O.J. Simpson case, a high-powered lawyer would bamboozle the jury.

    "I don't think you should be able to buy justice," said Maureen Burgess of Modesto, a retired teacher who wore a New Year's Eve tiara, long black skirt and sparkly black top to the Peterson home.

    "It's a happy new year finally for Laci's family," she said, explaining her costume. "They've waited long enough."

    People also expressed compassion for Lee and Jackie Peterson, Scott's parents.

    "They, too," Donna Bonora said, "are going to lose a child."

    Bee staff writer Julissa McKinnon can be reached at 578-2324 or jmckinnon@modbee.com.

    Bee staff writer Melanie Turner can be reached at 578-2366 or mturner@modbee.com.

  • She will be remembered for laughter and a beautiful smile.

    She will be remembered as a homicide victim who suffered a fate no one deserves.

    Those are the conflicted legacies of Laci Rocha Peterson.

    Even before Laci was born on May 4, 1975, Sharon Rocha sensed there was something different about her only daughter. There was something special about the way the child felt inside her, something Sharon understood once she had time to memorize the intricacies of Laci's face.

    Happy people get the best dimples.

    "I always knew she was going to be a good, happy baby," Sharon said in a January 2003 interview. "Within a few days, she was sleeping through the night. When I would go get her out of her crib, she would always wake up with a smile on her face."

    From the time she was a young child, Laci was happiest when she was outside gardening with her mother, pulling plants and, eventually, just the weeds. She learned to appreciate plant life. From that point on, wherever Laci lived, she surrounded herself with the fresh, green life found in vegetable gardens, flowers, plants and trees.

    Sharon and Dennis Rocha divorced when Laci and her brother, Brent, were young. Sharon and the children moved to Modesto. On weekends, Brent and Laci often visited the family's dairy west of Escalon. The two were very close, as children of divorces often are.

    Even though Brent was four years older than his sister, Laci never had any trouble fitting in with him and his friends. As they moved through their teens, Laci slowly began to blossom into a beautiful young woman. The change was not lost on Brent's friends.

    "She has always been so fun and outgoing," Brent said. "After a while, all my friends were saying things like, 'Man, your sister is really cute.' When she was 13 or 14, she still wanted to hang out with us like the old days, and I was kind of like, 'No, I don't think that's such a good idea.'"

    Laci attended Downey High School in Modesto.

    Wherever she went with her friends, Laci often became the center of attention. She was a refreshing blend of confidence, sincerity, loudness and charm.

    Laci graduated from Downey in 1993, going on to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where those days in the garden with her mother paid off in the form of an outstanding freshman award in the ornamental horticulture division.

    During her college years, Laci frequented a restaurant called the Pacific Cafe, where one of her neighbors worked. There, she met Scott Peterson, who also worked at the cafe. They began to go out and, after dating for two years, married in a warm ceremony at a coastal-area hot springs. While finishing college, the couple opened a burger joint called The Shack. They sold the business about four years ago when they moved to Modesto to start a family.

    Back in Modesto, Laci rekindled the friendships among her old Downey High classmates, complete with sleepovers, champagne and all-night gossip.

    "Sometimes you take the relationships you make in high school for granted," Renee Garza said. "It seemed like all of us were going all these different directions. She is the one who brought us all back together."

    In the summer of 2002, after two years of trying to get pregnant, Laci found out she was. And she could not contain her joy. She began calling friends and relatives at 7 a.m. the day she took a home pregnancy test — waking many with her jubilant announcement.

    "This was the most exciting time for her," her friend Rene Tomlinson said.

    Laci was about eight months pregnant on Christmas Eve when her friends began receiving calls of an entirely different sort. Scott had called many of them, asking if they'd seen Laci. None of them had. They searched into the late hours of the night, but turned up no sign of their friend.

    The day after Christmas, those close to Laci saw their worst fears begin to play out as police set up yellow crimescene tape around the Petersons' home, declaring it a crime scene. The public began to embrace the story. Within a week, Laci Peterson became a household name across the nation. Her pictures — marked by her trademark smile — would come to be shown countless thousands of times in newspapers and on TV shows.

    As massive searches for Laci were conducted throughout January 2003, speculation intensified about her husband, Scott, and what role he may have played in her disappearance. Laci's friends and family distanced themselves from Scott as reports surfaced about his affair with Amber Frey and his failure to cooperate with police.

    In March, police for the first time said they believed Laci was the victim of homicide. The next month, the bodies of Laci and Conner, their unborn son, were found about a mile apart on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, not far from where Scott told police he had gone fishing the day Laci was reported missing. A few days later, police arrested Scott and charged him with both murders.

    On May 4, an estimated 3,000 people filled First Baptist Church in Modesto for a memorial service. The event, which was held on what would have been Laci's 28th birthday, was shown live by numerous stations around the country.

    The memorial presented a breathtaking scene. A white-gowned choir, 120 voices strong, filled a large stage. Dozens of flower arrangements blanketed the altar in reds, pinks and whites. Nearby, a white column held the figurine of a child next to white roses, a tribute to Conner. In the center of it all, surrounded by hundreds of flowers and lush, green plants, stood a single portrait of Laci.

    Nearly four months later, on Aug. 29, about 250 family and friends gathered for a private burial at Burwood Cemetery in Escalon. Laci and Conner were laid to rest in a single casket.

    For them, justice would come Nov. 12, 2004, when a jury found Scott Peterson guilty of the murders of mother and child.

    Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at tphillips@modbee.com or 578-2331.

  • Mark Geragos began his closing argument by walking over to his client, Scott Peterson, and posing a simple question to the jury.

    "Do you all hate him?" Geragos asked, opening an argument in which he acknowledged that Peterson is a liar and a cheat.

    It was a theme that had played throughout a trial in which Geragos constantly reminded jurors that their feelings about Peterson had no bearing on their task of deciding his fate in the double-murder case.

    The message was unmistakable: Even as Geragos worked to defend Peterson's life, it was clear from the outset that Geragos wanted no part of defending Peterson's character.

    That was a case that could not be won.

    And Friday's guilty verdict led people to wonder about what happened along the way.

    In the first days after Laci Peterson was reported missing, her family and friends vehemently defended Scott, saying there was no way he could have had anything to do with Laci's disappearance. The Scott Peterson they said they knew was a gentleman and a good husband; people often used the word "perfect" to describe the Petersons' relationship.

    But that resolve changed, slowly at first, then quickly, as word traveled about his refusal to cooperate with police and his affair with Amber Frey. Laci's family members began publicly questioning Peterson, and Scott and Laci's closest friends -- many of whom initially stood by his side -- also moved to distance themselves.

    "I've talked with a lot of (Laci's) friends," Heather Richardson, a close friend of Laci, said in January 2003. "They just have a lot of questions, and they've said (Scott's) not the person they thought he was."

    Born Oct. 24, 1972, in San Diego, Scott is the youngest of Lee and Jacqueline Peterson's seven children. He was a happy, healthy child who got plenty of attention.

    His father, an avid hunter and fisherman, also loves to golf, and introduced his five sons to his cherished hobbies.

    Scott's mother said her youngest son showed compassion for others at a young age. While Scott was in high school, his parents twice received letters from people whose cars had broken down. He had helped them.

    Lee Peterson often took his sons on fishing trips to the mountains. Scott eventually convinced his father to buy a fishing boat, and fishing became his passion.

    But he gradually became a solid golfer, making the golf team at San Diego's University High, where future PGA star Phil Mickelson was a teammate. He went on to play golf briefly at Arizona State University, but left school and moved back home after his parents bought a house in Morro Bay, near San Luis Obispo.

    Scott returned to school: first at Cuesta College and then at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He moved out on his own, working three jobs to pay the bills.

    He met Laci Rocha one day while he waited on tables at the Pacific Cafe, and they gradually became friends. One day, Laci wrote her phone number on a piece of paper, handing it to her neighbor to give to Scott. Thinking his friend was playing a mean trick on him, Scott crumpled the paper and threw it in the garbage. After being convinced it was no joke, he retrieved the number from the trash and called her.

    They quickly fell for one another, and a few weeks later, Scott took Laci to San Diego to meet his brothers and sisters. They noticed how their brother could not stop smiling.

    They opened a restaurant together in San Luis Obispo called The Shack, which became a hit with college students. The couple sold it two years later after deciding to move to Modesto to start a family and be closer to Laci's parents.

    They rented a home for a while before buying a fixer-upper on Covena Avenue in the La Loma neighborhood. After a few years of trying to have a baby, Laci learned she was pregnant in the summer of 2002. She was so excited that she began calling family and friends at 7 a.m. after taking a pregnancy test.

    On Dec. 23, 2002, Laci and her mother spoke by telephone. The call ended about 8:30 p.m. Scott told police he last saw his wife the next morning as he left for a fishing trip out of the Berkeley Marina, and was unable to find her when he returned home that evening.

    Within a week, the national media had picked up the story, and Peterson's face was shown nightly throughout the country. TV pundits and the public at large voiced their suspicions about him. Camera crews followed his every move as he took part in searches for his wife.

    Initially, Peterson refused nearly every media request for interviews. That changed in the days after two news conferences -- one held by police, one by the Rocha family -- detailed his affair with Frey, arousing more suspicion about him. His public image suffered further damage when it became known that he had sold Laci's vehicle less than a month after she was reported missing, and also had inquired about selling their home.

    "I trusted (Scott) and I stood by him in the initial phases of my sister's disappearance," Laci's older brother, Brent Rocha, said at a January 2003 news conference. "However, Scott has not been forthcoming with information regarding my sister's disappearance. I'm only left to question what else he may be hiding."

    Peterson broke his silence shortly after those news conferences, giving short answers to reporters and, later, granting a series of in-depth interviews. Afterward, he spent much of his time in San Diego with his family, until his arrest in April 2003.

    And now with his conviction on double-murder charges, he faces the death penalty.

    Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at 578-2331 or tphillips@modbee.com.

  • FRIDAY

    Scott Peterson is guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and unborn son, jurors declared.

    Jurors were released from their nine-day sequestration and allowed to go home, but the judge warned them not to watch or read news about the case or to speak to anyone about it.


    NEXT WEEK

    Attorneys on both sides and their witnesses to prepare for the penalty phase.


    AND BEYOND

    NOV. 22 -- Penalty phase to begin with opening statements from both sides. Prosecutors call witnesses aimed at convincing jurors that Peterson should be put to death, followed by defense attorneys and their witnesses hoping to win him a life sentence.

    NOV. 25, THANKSGIVING DAY, THROUGH NOV. 28 -- No court.

    NOV. 29 -- Testimony in penalty phase should conclude about this time, judge predicts.

    NOV. 30 -- Closing arguments from both sides. After that, jurors will be sequestered until they determine Peterson's fate.


    HOURS DELIBERATED

    Third jury, formed Wednesday: 7 hours, 14 minutes

    All three juries, since last week: 38 hours, 42 minutes

REDWOOD CITY -- Two families hung on a single word:

Guilty.

The word knifed through the air in a San Mateo County courtroom Friday, ending almost 23 months of uncertainty for Laci Peterson's family and plummeting her husband's relatives into a desperate wait to see whether he will be sentenced to death.

Scott Peterson is guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and their unborn son, jurors decided after deliberating for less than eight hours, an abrupt climax to a wrenching legal odyssey.

Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, began sobbing as a court clerk read the first verdict: guilty of murdering Laci Peterson.

Rocha sobbed into son Brent Rocha's embrace as the judge asked the 12 jurors if that was their verdict. In succession, each answered "yes."

The six-man, six-woman jury returned a first-degree murder conviction in the Christmas Eve 2002 slaying of Laci Peterson, 27, and second-degree murder in the death of a baby to be named Conner.

Whether Peterson will be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole, will be decided in a second trial phase set to begin Nov. 22.

The 32-year-old fertilizer salesman from Modesto smiled and chatted with one of his attorneys before the jury entered the courtroom. He showed no emotion as the verdict was read.

One of Laci Peterson's childhood friends, Lori Ellsworth, burst into tears as the court clerk read the first guilty verdict. Ellsworth and three other friends of Laci Peterson cried harder and wiped their cheeks when the clerk announced it was first-degree murder.

Juror 11, a woman who said during jury selection that someone close to her had lost a child, turned to Sharon Rocha as jurors left the courtroom. The juror nodded slightly, the faintest hint of a grim smile on her drawn lips.

Scott Peterson's mother, Jackie Peterson, dropped her head as the verdict was read. Noticeably absent from the courtroom was the defendant's father, Lee Peterson, and the lead defense attorney, Mark Geragos.

"I feel bad I wasn't there," Geragos said by phone shortly after the verdict was read. He declined to comment further.

Geragos was in Southern California and had not anticipated a verdict coming back so quickly, a friend of the Los Angeles attorney said. Deliberations restarted Wednesday after the dismissal of the jury foreman, and jurors did not deliberate Thursday because of the Veterans Day holiday.

Defense attorney Pat Harris, who sat at the counsel table along with attorney Nareg Gourjian, refused to comment as he left the courthouse through an underground tunnel, citing a court-imposed gag order.

Prosecutors say nothing

Sharon Rocha smiled as she left the courthouse but did not comment. Her longtime companion, Ron Grantski, gave a thumbs up.

"We're very happy," said Harvey Kemple, a relative of Laci Peterson. Kemple was one of the trial's more colorful witnesses, testifying in June that he "saw more reaction out of (Peterson) when he burned the damn chicken than when his wife was missing."

Kemple's wife, Gwen, who is Sharon Rocha's cousin, said simply: "Great day, great day."

Prosecutors -- criticized early for presenting a rambling and spotty case -- said nothing as they left the courthouse. They beamed, though, as media and onlookers surrounded them.

Attorneys, jurors, witnesses and others are forbidden from talking publicly about the case until Peterson's sentence is determined.

"We're not done yet," Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton said as he left.

But the end is certainly closer in a drama that began when the pregnant substitute teacher was reported missing Christmas Eve 2002 after her husband returned from a solo fishing trip.

The remains of mother and son washed ashore nearly four months later, less than two miles from Peterson's boating route.

The case drove headlines across the continent and abroad, generating books, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, hours of news shows and a made-for-TV movie.

Jurors will have a week off before returning to court Nov. 22, when attorneys are to begin presenting witnesses and arguments on whether Peterson should be executed or spend life in prison.

Testimony in the penalty phase is expected to last four days, Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi said. Family members are likely to take the stand to alternately plead for Peterson's life or relay the damage caused by his wife's death, analysts said.

"The next phase is going to be absolutely gut-wrenching emotion," said Paula Canny, a Bay Area defense attorney observing the trial.

That jurors determined Peterson committed an extraordinarily heinous crime suggests that they're not afraid to vote for a death sentence, said James Hammer, former head of the San Francisco district attorney's homicide unit.

University of San Francisco law Professor Robert Talbot echoed that sentiment. "The speed that they came in is an indication that they are not feeling sympathetic," he said. "They are feeling strong against him."

'Verdict only half the battle'

Appellate issues also loom large, legal analysts said, ranging from defense evidence ruled inadmissible to three jurors being removed from the panel, two of them this week after deliberations had begun.

"This is a petri dish for the appellate lawyers," Hammer said. "This is a very perilous time for prosecutors. … The DA's got two jobs: Get the verdict, survive the appeal. This (verdict) is only half the battle."

Jurors deliberated for seven hours and 14 minutes after the original jury foreman, a doctor and attorney, was removed Wednesday amid questions of whether information from outside the trial had seeped into the deliberation room.

The new foreman, a firefighter and paramedic in his late 20s, often had sat in court with his arms folded across his chest, rarely taking notes. Some pundits speculated that his seeming disinterest boded well for the defense.

"I feel very vindicated," Howard Varinsky, a trial consultant who helped prosecutors pick jurors, said on TV after the verdict. "I'm thrilled. Justice was served."

Jurors had deliberated for more than 27 hours before Juror 7 was removed Tuesday for unexplained reasons. They deliberated for just more than four hours before the original foreman was dismissed.

"The jurors did not take enough time to deliberate after two new alternates were put in place," said Xavier Taylor, who has sat with Scott Peterson's family during much of the trial and described himself as a friend of the family and of Geragos. "It just didn't make any sense."

"I do believe the appeals process will be put into place," Taylor said. "And Scott will get his justice there."

Some legal analysts were puzzled by the jury's finding that Peterson premeditated his wife's killing, hence the first-degree murder conviction, but not that of their unborn son, whose death led to a second-degree conviction.

"To me, it's more consistent if they were both the same thing," Canny said. "How could he have planned to kill Laci and not her unborn infant? Juries do what juries do."

As it stands, the jury apparently accepted the prosecution position that this was a "common sense case" and rejected Geragos' argument that someone snatched Peterson while she walked her dog.

Minimal physical evidence

Prosecutors derided as a "vast conspiracy" Geragos' notion that homeless people in Modesto and transients camped near the bay were involved in the killings. Scott Peterson, prosecutors said, wanted freedom to pursue Fresno girlfriend Amber Frey and other women.

But they had minimal physical evidence tying Peterson to the killing. None of Laci Peterson's blood or bodily fluid was found in the couple's La Loma neighborhood home or in her husband's boat, warehouse or pickup.

The most damning evidence was the body's proximity to Peterson's alibi -- his fishing route the day his wife disappeared.

That "was the only strong evidence they had," Talbot said.

Prosecutors did have hours of secretly recorded calls and televised interviews that cast Peterson as a lying cheat trying to further a romance while his wife was missing.

"The only way a human could function that way if a loved one was missing was if this person was responsible," Canny said. "Clearly, they believed the prosecution's theory in the case. A normal person doesn't act that way."

Geragos also stumbled, some observers insisted. He failed to deliver on expectations that he would produce witnesses who allegedly saw Peterson launch his boat. And he also failed on a promise to prove that Conner Peterson was born after his father had come under police surveillance.

Then there was the obstetrician, called as a defense witness, imploding on the stand.

But Geragos' worst mistake was putting on a defense case, Talbot said, rather than resting to dramatically highlight that prosecutors had failed to prove Peterson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"He accomplished absolutely nothing," Talbot said, "but to strengthen the other side."

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

Bee staff writers Jeff Jardine and Elizabeth Johnson contributed to this report.

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