5:04 p.m.: REDWOOD CITY - Laci Peterson’s mother confronted her daughter’s convicted killer this afternoon, shouting at her son-in-law, her eyes full of tears, that “divorce was always an option, not murder.”
Sharon Rocha took the witness stand and recalled the agony of waiting 116 days - unable to sleep, wracked by nightmares, sometimes imagining her daughter standing before her - until the bodies of a dismembered Laci Peterson and the unborn son she had carried washed ashore separately along San Francisco Bay.
“You knew were she was,” Rocha said turning to glare at Scott Peterson. “Instead, you just let us go through this every day.”
Peterson sat emotionless at the defense table.
Laci Peterson’s family and friends erupted in tears as Rocha recounted moments before her daughter’s funeral.
“I knew that I needed to spend some time with her,” Rocha said, clutching a tissue. “I knew she was in the casket and I knew the baby was there and I knew she didn’t have arms to hold him. ... She should have had her arms.”
Two female jurors put their heads in their hands and sobbed. Another juror, a husky Teamster, closed his eyes, thrust his head back, exhaled and wiped at his eye with a tissue.
“Laci didn’t deserve to die,” Rocha said. She was the last of four family members to testify today in the penalty phase of Peterson’s murder trial.
The deserving fate for Scott Peterson is at the sharp end of a deadly syringe, prosecutor Dave Harris told jurors this morning in a brief but gripping opening statement as the trial’s penalty phase got under way after a 2½-hour delay.
“The only appropriate and just punishment would be death,” Harris said as Peterson sat impassively a few feet away. He was convicted Nov. 12 of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner.
Harris ended 18 days of speculation when he said that Laci Peterson’s mother, surrogate stepfather, sister and brother will testify about “how there is a hole in their heart that can never be repaired.” One will take the witness stand when the trial resumes at 1:30 p.m.
They will describe “116 days” of horror, Harris said, referring to the time that elapsed from Laci Peterson’s Christmas Eve 2002 disappearance until the victims’ remains were recovered near her husband’s fishing route.
“The entire time, with the defendant in their midst,” Harris continued.
“You’re going to hear they actually feel guilty because they didn’t protect Laci from the one person they didn’t think she needed protection from.”
The trial, delayed several times since testimony began June 2, was put on hold this morning when a bartender was summoned to court and escorted behind closed doors. Rumors swirled that the man might have heard jurors talking at some point of the trial, now nearly six months old.
His San Francisco attorney, Ian Loveseth, called his client “Gino,” but both men refused to reveal his last name. “Gino the bartender sounds perfect,” Loveseth said.
Judge Alfred Delucchi said nothing upon emerging from his private chamber, other than to apologize for another delay.
Outside the courthouse, legal analyst and former prosecutor Dean Johnson said, “It’s obvious the judge who listened to this supposed bartender’s testimony has decided that whatever he had to say really isn't material.”
The undisclosed conflict could be fodder for appealing verdicts, however, he said.
Delucchi read prepared instructions to the jury, including permission to consider “lingering doubt as a factor in mitigation,” a potentially significant boost to Peterson’s defense.
In other words, jurors can factor doubts they may have about his guilt into their final recommendation on death or life in prison. As allowed by law, defense attorney Mark Geragos deferred his opening statement until after prosecutors finish presenting their case for execution.
That left this morning’s limelight for Harris, who said, “When the defendant dumped the bodies of his wife and unborn son into the bay, those ripples spread out and they touched many, many lives.”
He said Laci Peterson’s brother and sister, Brent and Amy Rocha, will describe growing up with the victim in Modesto and Escalon.
“You’re going to hear about what Laci’s plans were, what her dreams were, the baby she wanted,” Harris said.
Her mother, Sharon Rocha, will talk about a grandmother’s plans “to spoil that baby,” Harris said.
“Sharon Rocha is the most important person in that courtroom,” Johnson said. “(Jurors) see her almost as the living embodiment of Laci Peterson. Having Sharon Rocha on the stand is the closest thing that you can have to having Laci Peterson walk in and either say, ‘Put this man to death or spare his life.’”
The four prosecution witnesses will tell how holidays “will never be the same,” including Christmas, Mother’s Day and birthdays, Harris said.
“You are going to hear about her as a person,” Harris told jurors, “what she meant to this family, the loss they all suffer.”