(From Sunday, March 23, 2003 edition)
An arrest in the Laci Peterson investigation is likely to lead to double homicide charges and the possibility of the death penalty.
Peterson was eight months pregnant when she was reported missing on Christmas Eve. Modesto police recently reclassified their investigation as a homicide case.
"There's no question that this case would be charged as a double homicide," said Jeanette Sereno, an attorney and assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Stanislaus.
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"If there was probable cause to charge someone with Laci Peterson's killing, then there also would be probable cause to charge for the killing of the unborn fetus.
"The problematic cases happen when a woman was not visibly pregnant or did not know she was pregnant. But this is an obvious and easy case to charge."
Many states have vastly differing laws concerning the killing of a fetus. Some states treat any fetus as a living being; others consider it illegally terminating a pregnancy, a felony offense.
In California, the law defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought. The unborn child must have passed the embryonic stage, roughly between 6 and 8 weeks.
Also, anyone convicted of more than one first- or second-degree murder is eligible for special circumstances, which can include the death penalty.
One such scenario is playing out in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Gilberto Cano, 29, has been charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of his pregnant girlfriend, Martha Isela Moreno, and her fetus.
Last April, sheriff's deputies found the 29-year-old woman dead in her Airport Neighborhood home. She had been stabbed several times in the stomach, investigators said.
Cano was arrested later that night. His next scheduled court appearance is April 11 for a preliminary hearing.
"In most cases when a woman is pregnant and she and her fetus are killed," Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said, "if the facts support the probability of conviction, we will charge the perpetrator with two counts of murder."
Peterson's husband, Scott, has told police he last saw his wife Christmas Eve as he was leaving for a fishing trip in Berkeley. He told police he could not find his wife when he returned home that evening.
Laci Peterson's stepfather, Ron Grantski, called police and reported her missing.
Police said they have not been able to rule Peterson out as a suspect in the investigation, yet they have not named him as a suspect.
"The basic underlying premise is that if you engage in a homicidal act against a woman of childbearing years," Sereno said, "then you assume responsibility for the possibility that this woman could be with child.
"If you were talking about Laci Peterson, it would be patently obvious that it is a woman who is very near term, and that the homicidal act would definitely be with knowledge that there would be two deaths."
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at 578-2331 or email@example.com.