MODESTO -- Scott Peterson's attorney formally appealed his death sentence late Thursday, seeking freedom more than seven years after he was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and their unborn son.
The filing is his first step toward leaving death row, his father told The Bee on Friday. Laci Peterson's family said a strategy for speeding up the appeal process could backfire, putting Scott Peterson on a fast track to the death chamber.
Jurors were unduly swayed by massive publicity, Berkeley attorney Cliff Gardner said in the 470-page appeal, even though the 2004 trial was moved from Modesto to Redwood City, "only 90 miles away," the document reads.
"The case against Mr. Peterson was anything but overwhelming," Gardner argued. "There were no eyewitnesses, no confessions, no admissions and scant physical evidence connected him to the crime."
Substitute teacher Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when she disappeared Christmas Eve 2002. Her husband said he had been fishing in a newly purchased boat in San Francisco Bay and returned to an empty house.
"From Day 1 on, Mr. Peterson said he was innocent," the appeal reads.
The badly decomposed bodies of mother and fetus washed ashore nearly four months later, He was tried and convicted in a blockbuster trial stretching for most of 2004, and arrived on death row in March 2005.
"This (appeal) is a first step toward getting an innocent man out of San Quentin," his father, Lee, said on the telephone Friday, citing an "astounding
lack of evidence."
Faster than usual
Although it's been seven years, the Peterson appeal is considered quick relative to other California death penalties cases, which are automatically appealed and typically languish more than a decade. His family hired Gardner, an attorney specializing in California Supreme Court work, in hope of freeing Scott Peterson soon.
Ron Grantski, longtime companion of Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mother, said: "I think he's crazy. Let him go ahead. Once the appeal's met, he's pretty much on the starting line for death, that's the way I look at it."
Birgit Fladager, a Peterson prosecutor elected as Stanislaus County district attorney in 2006 and re-elected two years ago, said it's refreshing for a death row inmate not to stall as a tactic to stay alive.
Her attorneys are cooperating with the state attorney general's office, who will write a reply to Gardner's appeal. "I don't know when," she said, "but it won't take seven years."
No juror ever contacted by The Bee over the years has second-guessed the unanimous decision, and two reaffirmed that Friday.
"He got probably one of the best juries he could have had," said Richelle Nice, nicknamed "Strawberry Shortcake" by a media horde because jurors' identities were kept under wraps until after the trial. "We looked at everything up and down, backward and forward," she said Friday.
Mike Belmessieri, another juror, said: "We were right to put Scott where he is now. I've never felt any different about that, never.
"Here's the bottom line: He did it. God knows each one of us (jurors) has thought about it thousands of times since the trial. He did it, he's guilty, he's where he should be right now and he belongs in the death chamber. It's that simple."
Missteps by judge claimed
Peterson was having an affair with Amber Frey, a Fresno massage therapist, before his wife went missing. Frey was mentioned little in Thursday's appeal, except to note that her young daughter did not fit with prosecutors' theory that Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, were murdered to free the suspect from family obligations.
The appeal pays little attention to Peterson's celebrity defense attorney, Mark Geragos, preferring to focus on claims of missteps by Judge Alfred Delucci, who died of cancer in 2008.
For example, Delucci improperly excused all prospective jurors who professed misgivings about the death penalty, Gardner said. The standard should have allowed jurors who were willing to overlook their own views to impose capital punishment in some cases, he said.
Pervasive publicity made it impossible to seat a panel of fair jurors even in the Bay Area, Gardner said in documents released late Thursday.
"Before hearing even a single witness, nearly half of all prospective jurors admitted they had already decided Mr. Peterson was guilty of capital murder," Gardner argued.
Delucci should have agreed to move the trial a second time when thousands of prospective jurors showed bias in questionnaires, Gardner wrote. He did not mention that Geragos would have found it vastly more convenient if the trial had been sent to Southern California, close to his office and home.
Gardner noted that jurors "were met with wild applause and cheering" by "a mob" of more than 1,000 people after the guilty verdict was announced. Jurors reassembled for weeks of additional testimony and deliberation on "whether Mr. Peterson would live or die."
Surpassed Manson, O.J.
Prosecutors mused that the trial "surpassed the Manson case
and the O.J. Simpson case," Gardner wrote.
Gardner questioned why prosecutors were allowed to introduce "highly prejudicial dog scent evidence" and an expert in movement of bodies in water, but defense attorneys were barred from showing a video casting doubt on the theory of dumping overboard a weighted body without capsizing.
Also, the judge dismissed a juror for chatting about evidence outside the courtroom but failed to do the same to others who did the same thing, Gardner argued. In subsequent interviews, the dismissed juror decidedly favored Peterson's team to that point, but retained jurors convicted him.
Delucci should have done more, Gardner said, to address a claim that another juror discussed the case with a bartender; that juror was instrumental in persuading others to convict Peterson, according to subsequent interviews and a book co-written by some jurors.
"Mr. Peterson recognizes, of course, that he was not entitled to a perfect trial," Gardner wrote. "But he was still entitled to a fair one."
Geragos started the trial with a bang, exposing prosecutors for misleading jurors about a meringue comment on Martha Stewart's TV show and promising to prove his client "stone cold innocent." His theory that vagrants must have killed Laci Peterson and framed her husband ignored in Thursday's appeal failed to convince jurors, they said after the trial.
Fladager said of Geragos, "You may disagree with some of his tactics, but he was extremely competent and represented Peterson with zeal."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.
FOCUS ON APPEAL
Excerpts from the appeal of Scott Peterson's death sentence, filed Thursday:
focused exclusively on Scott Peterson as the murderer.
Detectives had already singled Scott out as the prime suspect in the case.
Police falsely told Laci's family that Scott had recently taken out a life insurance policy on Laci for $250,000. Despite its falsity, (it) was also widely reported in the media.
There was no cause of death (proven). There was no murder weapon. There was no confession.
Police found nothing suggesting a crime occurred (at the Modesto house). No blood, urine or tissue of any kind was found.
(Prosecution expert) Dr. Cheng admitted he had no experience at all with how bodies move in water.
Evidence of prior criminal activity (is common in penalty phases, but) no such evidence was introduced here. Instead, the state's entire case consisted of touching and emotional victim impact testimony from relatives of Laci her brother, sister, stepfather and mother about the devastating impact of Laci's loss.
The trial court's clearly stated view that 'if you don't support the death penalty, you cannot be (a juror)' is unquestionably wrong.
Including jurors who are less likely to convict fosters the precise exchange of different views leading both to 'effective group deliberation' and a verdict based on a reliable and robust deliberation.
San Mateo County was saturated with publicity about the case, including print media, radio coverage, network television and cable. This publicity, some of which was plainly inflammatory, continued unabated. It made a fair trial impossible.
While this dog scent evidence appeared to be among the most damning, it was also some of the most unreliable (and) should never have been allowed into the courtroom.
Reversal (of the conviction) is required because the jury performed an improper experiment regarding the stability of the boat under conditions which could not have given the jury anything close to a reliable indication of how the boat acted in the open ocean.
The release of the jurors into a mob of spectators cheering the guilty verdict could have sent only one message about the appropriate penalty phase verdict in the eyes of the public: that verdict was death.