Scott Peterson may have been tried, convicted and sentenced to death in the jury of public opinion, but it won't be so easy to win a conviction at trial, according to a variety of legal experts.
"This could just be a case of an immature idiot getting into a fight and killing his pregnant wife, and then doing a series of really stupid things," said former federal prosecutor Don Heller. "On the other hand, it could turn out to be one of the most diabolical, venal cases that I've ever seen. And if he didn't do it, this poor guy is really getting screwed over."
The 30-year-old fertilizer salesman was charged last week with the premeditated murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner, after their bodies washed ashore on a beach near Richmond. On Christmas Eve, the day his wife was reported missing from her Modesto home, Peterson told investigators he had been fishing in the Berkeley Marina, two miles from the beach.
Prosecutors have filed two murder charges that allege special circumstances, and announced Friday that they will seek the death penalty. But legal experts said this week that they have seen little evidence to explain what really happened to Laci, or other proof that would enable prosecutors to show that her death was a deliberate act rather than an accident.
"Everybody is assuming this guy is guilty," said San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Stuart Hanlon, who has represented a number of high-profile clients, including members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. "Nobody knows for sure. The fact that you can't think of who else could have done it doesn't answer the question."
Officials investigating the case, while tight-lipped about specific evidence, have said they are confident they have Laci Peterson's killer.
Police search much, say little
Over the past four months -- between Laci Peterson's disappearance and the gruesome discovery of her decomposing body last week -- Modesto police have conducted repeated searches, taking evidence from Peterson's home, boat, cars and other property. Records of what they were seeking and what they found have been sealed.
Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton has said that the evidence against Peterson is "voluminous" and that it includes physical and circumstantial evidence.
Yet attorneys who have tried capital murder cases say that proving both murders were premeditated and committed with malice -- required for a death sentence -- would take some compelling circumstantial evidence.
"It's always hard to prove premeditation when there are no witnesses," Hanlon said.
Critical to the prosecution's case would be anything that showed Peterson intended to kill his wife before her death. Absent that kind of evidence, a jury would be hard-pressed to return anything stronger than a manslaughter verdict against him, a crime punishable by no more than 11 years in prison.
"Say he did it, and he dumped the body in the bay and he cut off the head," Hanlon said. "That's evidence of guilt, but not of premeditated murder. You can say that someone who killed his wife in the heat of passion ought to go right to the cops, but most people don't. They're scared to death."
In Peterson's case, the difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter could hinge on details like whether Peterson said anything to his Fresno mistress that indicated he expected to be rid of his wife. The mistress told investigators she was unaware Peterson was married, but detectives likely will scrutinize what he told her about his past -- and their future.
Investigators also may be looking at the hard drive of Peterson's computer to see what Web sites he visited, any information he downloaded and e-mails he sent and received.
"There are lots of things that stay on computers even when most people think they've eliminated them by hitting a delete key," said Heller, now a Sacramento defense attorney.
If detectives find there was concrete holding Laci Peterson's body at the bottom of the bay, and the concrete could be traced to a batch Peterson bought before her death, it could indicate premeditation.
Similarly, a life insurance policy taken out before her death could indicate Peterson planned to profit from his wife's death. But legal experts this week cautioned against making too much of the life insurance policy in the Peterson case, saying it would not be unusual for a couple expecting a child to get insured.
"It's just pieces of a puzzle, until all of a sudden the puzzle is now a face and there is no other conclusion," Heller said.
And even if Peterson is proven guilty of no more than manslaughter in the death of his wife, the former prosecutor said Peterson still could be guilty of murdering his unborn son, if he didn't try to save him.
"Let's say it was a fight," Heller said. "But the baby's alive. Peterson knows the baby's alive. He has an obligation under the law of civilized human beings to try to save the baby. He has an obligation to call 911. When he didn't do that, he acted in conscious disregard for life."
Peterson is scheduled to return to court May 6 for a hearing on whether he can be released on bail.
Legal experts said it is difficult for anyone charged with a double homicide to be granted bail, but Peterson's chances are further diminished by the belief that he may have been preparing to flee to Mexico. When detectives arrested Peterson near his parents' home in San Diego County on April 18, he had changed his hair color, grown a goatee and was carrying his brother's driver's license. He also had about $10,000 cash in his car.
"Those are all factors that would suggest he would not be a good candidate to let out," Heller said.
THE PETERSON FILE
DA SEEKS DEATH --
Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton announces he will seek the death penalty against Scott Peterson.
-- Rick Distaso and Dave Harris, senior deputy district attorneys, will prosecute the case.
SPEAKING OUT ON
GAG ORDER -- The district attorney's office acknowledges that it turned down a request from the defense for both sides to agree to a gag order.
BUSH URGES FEDERAL
LAW -- Without mentioning the Peterson case, the White House urges Congress to pass a law making it a federal crime to harm a fetus during an assault on its mother. The House passed legislation in 2001 that would make it a criminal offense to injure or kill
a fetus during the commission of a violent crime. The Senate never took up the measure. California is one of 26 states with laws that permit homicide charges in deaths of fetuses, and Peterson is in fact charged with two counts of murder -- one for his wife, Laci, and one for their unborn son, Conner.
CREATURE COMFORT -- A friend gives a beagle puppy to Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, Laci Peterson's mother and stepfather. Grantski says he and his wife have not yet named the dog.
MAY 6, BAIL HEARING -- A judge must weigh many factors in deciding
if Peterson can be released on bail. Granting bail is uncommon in capital murder cases.
MAY 19, PRELIMINARY
HEARING CONFERENCE -- A meeting before the hearing itself. At the hearing, a judge must determine if there is enough evidence to hold Peterson for trial.