June 3, 2008

Scott Peterson faces wrongful death suit filed by Laci's family

If a wrongful death lawsuit in the case of Laci and Conner Peterson goes to trial next month as planned, convicted murderer Scott Peterson may be like a ghost in the machine.

Modesto's most notorious offender would not be transported from death row to Stanislaus County Superior Court to face former in-laws who are seeking a multimillion-dollar judgment that is largely symbolic.

But Scott Peterson, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination over and over again during a videotaped deposition taken at San Quentin State Prison, will have some input, albeit remotely.

When he was questioned by his former in-laws' attorneys, Peterson insisted that he is innocent and the victim of a shoddy investigation by Modesto police. Most of all, he said, he is grieving over the loss of his family.

"I love my wife," Peterson said during a July 12, 2006, deposition, which became part of the court record last week. "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."

The second incarnation of the sensational case could revolve solely around a monetary award -- or it could be a full-blown trial in which Laci Peterson's parents must prove that Scott Peterson killed his pregnant wife. Judge Roger Beauchesne is expected to hear arguments about the scope of the trial Friday.

The court has set aside five weeks for trial, beginning July 8, but an attorney for Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mother,said only four or five days would be needed if the court agrees that Peterson's conviction and death sentence speak for themselves.

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 also said he should die for his crime, but the verdicts have been appealed.

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.

"If there's any possibility of him profiting from this, my clients want to intercept those funds," said attorney Adam Stewart of Modesto, who represents Sharon Rocha.

Attorney Gary Davis of Modesto, who represents Laci Peterson's father, Dennis Rocha, could not be reached for comment.

The Rochas, who are divorced, initially sought $25 million, but their lawsuit now asks for an unspecified amount of damages. Sharon Rocha is the author of "For Laci: A Mother's Story of Love, Loss and Justice."

Although Laci Peterson's parents believe the question of guilt has been settled, Scott Peterson concedes nothing. In legal papers, defense attorney Nareg Gourjian of Los Angeles contends that the question of innocence remains very much alive.

As proof, Gourjian cites numerous points the defense brought out when the criminal case went to trial. He is an associate of attorney Mark Geragos, who represented Peterson during a trial that garnered nationwide attention. Calls to the firm were not returned.

Attorney: Appeal not affected

An appeal 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.

This time, Peterson argues that his liability is not self- evident.

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.

Stewart said Peterson can end the litigation any time he likes by agreeing to a monetary judgment of $10 million or more.

As he put it, "Scott can always stop this and agree to a stipulated judgment."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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