DA's idea takes cue from struggle of Peterson jurors

December 5, 2006 

Scott Peterson smiled wickedly at the foot of Mike Belmessieri's bed.

"He was laughing and saying, 'I'm going to get away with it,' with that sick smile he had."

The dream faded.

Belmessieri, a burly ex-Marine and former police services officer, said Monday he still pays an emotional price for being chosen to decide Peterson's fate. Belmessieri and other jurors are writing a book due out Jan. 1.

Next week marks the two-year anniversary of the jury's death sentence for the Modesto man convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn son, Conner. Scott Peterson, 34, remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison, awaiting appeals.

Birgit Fladager, one of three prosecutors on the case, visited with jurors afterward and recognized that healing would not come easily.

Elected Stanislaus County district attorney in June, Fladager is turning attention to an idea for legislation that would give counseling to jurors after harrowing cases.

"It's pretty evident that (the Peterson trial) affected our jurors on a very personal level," she said.

People weighing life-and-death decisions on highinterest, high-stress cases "need tools to deal with that," she said.

Fladager said she will rally top prosecutors in other counties and pitch the idea to lawmakers.

She envisions judges in exceptional trials having the option of calling in a psychiatrist or psychologist for an hour or so of therapy. At the very least, jurors who have been exposed to graphic photographs and emotional testimony should know that it's normal to lose appetites and sleep, she said.

"We're talking about human beings on a very basic level," Fladager said. "This is not TV. It's not pretend. And whatever decision they make impacts everyone dramatically."

Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist who has written 27 books, most of them about high-profile crimes, said Fladager's idea makes perfect sense. Jurors in extraordinary cases have exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

"There is a certain responsibility to see to their welfare," Ramsland said. "Jurors talk about images they can't get rid of, things they learned about human nature that they never thought possible. Many people are not equipped to process that and are not given a way to do that."

Threats, nightmares, illness

Several Peterson jurors have described troubles coping after the blockbuster trial, which stretched through much of 2004 in Redwood City after a judge ruled that publicity had corrupted the jury pool around Modesto.

Two San Mateo County jurors received death threats. Several reported nightmares. Some fell ill after an initial round of media interviews, including one who landed in the hospital.

One juror had married a convicted killer after his trial, and he was subsequently killed in prison. Another accidentally killed her 22-month-old son 18 years before the trial. Another's daughter was engaged to a young man who had worked for Scott and Laci Peterson at a restaurant they owned before moving to Modesto. All said the trial profoundly affected them.

Juror Richelle Nice, known for her funky dress and varying shades of red and pink hair dye, said she began corresponding with Peterson in his cell at the urging of her therapist.

Most, in interviews with The Bee, have described frustration at the judge's order that they not discuss the case with anyone during the six-month trial — not their spouses, pastors or even each other. They did not even know each other's real names, and they were sequestered in a hotel away from their families while deliberating more than a week.

Partially repaying that sacrifice with therapy would represent an insignificant cost, Fladager said.

Fladager idea 'on the money'

Seven jurors, including Bel-messieri, recently finished collaborating with People magazine writer Frank Swertlow on "We, the Jury: Deciding Scott Peterson's Fate." Phoenix Books intends to release a 248-page hardcover in four weeks.

"We wanted to tell a story about what you go through, what our deliberations were like and how it affected our lives afterward," Belmessieri said. "Everyone has residual effects."

Fladager's idea to offer counseling is "right on the money," Belmessieri said. He said Laci Peterson's autopsy photographs peeled raw a mental scab of seeing a fellow Marine blown up by a grenade in Vietnam, an image he thought he had gotten over years before.

Her body was recovered at the edge of San Francisco Bay without a head, hands or feet. Authorities said they believe the body was weighted and came apart as it decomposed.

"Every day, I drive across the bay to go to work," said Belmes-sieri, who works in the East Bay for a company with regional offices in Modesto. "And I think of her because part of her is still in that bay."

He still thinks of Scott Peterson, too.

"I hope that bastard looks at that bay and rots in hell."

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

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