Peterson may face civil trial in deaths

Lawyers could need more than convictions to prevail

June 7, 2008 

Peterson

Scott Peterson listens to attorney Mark Geragos Friday morning (1/23/04) in the Stanislaus County courthouse in Modesto. Modesto Bee/ Bart Ah You

BART AH YOU — Modesto Bee

Scott Peterson may face a second trial, this one in civil court, as his former in-laws seek a multimillion-dollar wrongful death judgment against him in the deaths of Laci and Conner Peterson.

Judge Roger Beauchesne ruled Friday that Peterson's conviction and death sentence would not alone be sufficient dur- ing the civil trial to prove wrongful deaths.

Defense attorney Nareg Gourjian of Los Angeles cited a videotaped deposition at San Quentin State Prison in which Peterson insists he is innocent and the victim of a shoddy investigation by Modesto police, as well as points brought out by the defense during Peterson's criminal trial.

"We're obviously disputing that he killed his wife," Gourjian said.

The trial is set to begin July 8 and should take about five weeks, said Gourjian, an associate of attorney Mark Geragos, who represented Peterson during a trial that garnered nationwide attention. Peterson's criminal trial, moved from Modesto to Redwood City, lasted one year.

Attorneys for Laci Peterson's father, Dennis Rocha, and mother, Sharon Rocha, argued that the facts of the case were settled. Beauchesne said there still were issues in the case sufficient to be retried but stayed his ruling until June 23 to allow lawyers to appeal.

"It's a very hard burden to carry," said Gary Davis of Modesto, who represents Dennis Rocha. "The court ruled."

Sharon Rocha could not be reached Friday and Jackie Peterson, Scott Peterson's mother, said she had no comment on the decision.

The former fertilizer salesman does not have the deep pockets of celebrity murder suspects who have been acquitted in criminal trials but pursued in civil court, such as football player O.J. Simpson or actor Robert Blake.

But Peterson was at the center of a trial that generated numerous books, two made-for-TV movies and countless news stories. Laci Peterson's parents want to make sure he never sells his story.

The Rochas, who are divorced, initially sought $25 million, but their lawsuit now asks for an unspecified amount of damages.

While the civil trial will be longer and more difficult as a result of the ruling, Professor Michael Vitiello of the University of Pacific's McGeorge School of Law said having a jury hear the emotional testimony could result in a larger monetary award.

"You want to hear as many details as possible to come before the jury ... all the evidence about all the things (Peterson) did and how (Laci's) body vanished, showing a calculating and uncaring person," Vitiello said. "You get the jury all worked up, and when it comes to finding damages, then the jury's mad."

Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son, then dumping her body in San Francisco Bay during a Christmas Eve 2002 fishing trip. Twelve jurors said he should die for his crime, but the verdicts have been appealed.

In the deposition videotaped July 12, 2006, which became part of the court record last month, Peterson asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at the beginning of the proceeding, then declined to answer questions 195 more times.

Peterson said he understood that the deposition was his opportunity to set the record straight because he will not be transported from death row for the civil trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court. He proclaimed his innocence several times and said he is grieving over the loss of his family.

"I love my wife," Peterson said. "I love my son. I will always love them. I have always loved them. I should be able to hug them right now. I should be able to hold my son."

Previous claim for insurance policy

An appeal of the criminal case to the California Supreme Court is being handled by attorneys Cliff Gardner of Oakland and Lawrence Gibbs of Berkeley. Gardner said the outcome of the lawsuit should have no bearing on the appeal, which will be based on the trial record.

In a previous lawsuit, Scott Peterson and Sharon Rocha argued over a $250,000 life insurance policy in Laci Peterson's name. Peterson said the money could not be awarded to his mother-in-law, who is the executor of Laci Peterson's estate, until his appeal is final.

Beauchesne said there was no reason to wait and an appellate court upheld his ruling. Death penalty appeals can take decades.

Meanwhile, Laci Peterson's parents want to tell 12 jurors how much they miss their daughter, then request a symbolic judgment to close the book on the case.

Attorney Adam Stewart of Modesto, who represents Sharon Rocha, said Peterson can end the litigation by agreeing to a monetary judgment of $10 million or more.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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