Guilty: Jury next to decide if he'll be executed

11/13/2004 7:55 AM

11/20/2007 7:01 AM

REDWOOD CITY -- Two families hung on a single word:

Guilty.

The word knifed through the air in a San Mateo County courtroom Friday, ending almost 23 months of uncertainty for Laci Peterson's family and plummeting her husband's relatives into a desperate wait to see whether he will be sentenced to death.

Scott Peterson is guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and their unborn son, jurors decided after deliberating for less than eight hours, an abrupt climax to a wrenching legal odyssey.

Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, began sobbing as a court clerk read the first verdict: guilty of murdering Laci Peterson.

Rocha sobbed into son Brent Rocha's embrace as the judge asked the 12 jurors if that was their verdict. In succession, each answered "yes."

The six-man, six-woman jury returned a first-degree murder conviction in the Christmas Eve 2002 slaying of Laci Peterson, 27, and second-degree murder in the death of a baby to be named Conner.

Whether Peterson will be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole, will be decided in a second trial phase set to begin Nov. 22.

The 32-year-old fertilizer salesman from Modesto smiled and chatted with one of his attorneys before the jury entered the courtroom. He showed no emotion as the verdict was read.

One of Laci Peterson's childhood friends, Lori Ellsworth, burst into tears as the court clerk read the first guilty verdict. Ellsworth and three other friends of Laci Peterson cried harder and wiped their cheeks when the clerk announced it was first-degree murder.

Juror 11, a woman who said during jury selection that someone close to her had lost a child, turned to Sharon Rocha as jurors left the courtroom. The juror nodded slightly, the faintest hint of a grim smile on her drawn lips.

Scott Peterson's mother, Jackie Peterson, dropped her head as the verdict was read. Noticeably absent from the courtroom was the defendant's father, Lee Peterson, and the lead defense attorney, Mark Geragos.

"I feel bad I wasn't there," Geragos said by phone shortly after the verdict was read. He declined to comment further.

Geragos was in Southern California and had not anticipated a verdict coming back so quickly, a friend of the Los Angeles attorney said. Deliberations restarted Wednesday after the dismissal of the jury foreman, and jurors did not deliberate Thursday because of the Veterans Day holiday.

Defense attorney Pat Harris, who sat at the counsel table along with attorney Nareg Gourjian, refused to comment as he left the courthouse through an underground tunnel, citing a court-imposed gag order.

Prosecutors say nothing

Sharon Rocha smiled as she left the courthouse but did not comment. Her longtime companion, Ron Grantski, gave a thumbs up.

"We're very happy," said Harvey Kemple, a relative of Laci Peterson. Kemple was one of the trial's more colorful witnesses, testifying in June that he "saw more reaction out of (Peterson) when he burned the damn chicken than when his wife was missing."

Kemple's wife, Gwen, who is Sharon Rocha's cousin, said simply: "Great day, great day."

Prosecutors -- criticized early for presenting a rambling and spotty case -- said nothing as they left the courthouse. They beamed, though, as media and onlookers surrounded them.

Attorneys, jurors, witnesses and others are forbidden from talking publicly about the case until Peterson's sentence is determined.

"We're not done yet," Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton said as he left.

But the end is certainly closer in a drama that began when the pregnant substitute teacher was reported missing Christmas Eve 2002 after her husband returned from a solo fishing trip.

The remains of mother and son washed ashore nearly four months later, less than two miles from Peterson's boating route.

The case drove headlines across the continent and abroad, generating books, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, hours of news shows and a made-for-TV movie.

Jurors will have a week off before returning to court Nov. 22, when attorneys are to begin presenting witnesses and arguments on whether Peterson should be executed or spend life in prison.

Testimony in the penalty phase is expected to last four days, Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi said. Family members are likely to take the stand to alternately plead for Peterson's life or relay the damage caused by his wife's death, analysts said.

"The next phase is going to be absolutely gut-wrenching emotion," said Paula Canny, a Bay Area defense attorney observing the trial.

That jurors determined Peterson committed an extraordinarily heinous crime suggests that they're not afraid to vote for a death sentence, said James Hammer, former head of the San Francisco district attorney's homicide unit.

University of San Francisco law Professor Robert Talbot echoed that sentiment. "The speed that they came in is an indication that they are not feeling sympathetic," he said. "They are feeling strong against him."

'Verdict only half the battle'

Appellate issues also loom large, legal analysts said, ranging from defense evidence ruled inadmissible to three jurors being removed from the panel, two of them this week after deliberations had begun.

"This is a petri dish for the appellate lawyers," Hammer said. "This is a very perilous time for prosecutors. The DA's got two jobs: Get the verdict, survive the appeal. This (verdict) is only half the battle."

Jurors deliberated for seven hours and 14 minutes after the original jury foreman, a doctor and attorney, was removed Wednesday amid questions of whether information from outside the trial had seeped into the deliberation room.

The new foreman, a firefighter and paramedic in his late 20s, often had sat in court with his arms folded across his chest, rarely taking notes. Some pundits speculated that his seeming disinterest boded well for the defense.

"I feel very vindicated," Howard Varinsky, a trial consultant who helped prosecutors pick jurors, said on TV after the verdict. "I'm thrilled. Justice was served."

Jurors had deliberated for more than 27 hours before Juror 7 was removed Tuesday for unexplained reasons. They deliberated for just more than four hours before the original foreman was dismissed.

"The jurors did not take enough time to deliberate after two new alternates were put in place," said Xavier Taylor, who has sat with Scott Peterson's family during much of the trial and described himself as a friend of the family and of Geragos. "It just didn't make any sense."

"I do believe the appeals process will be put into place," Taylor said. "And Scott will get his justice there."

Some legal analysts were puzzled by the jury's finding that Peterson premeditated his wife's killing, hence the first-degree murder conviction, but not that of their unborn son, whose death led to a second-degree conviction.

"To me, it's more consistent if they were both the same thing," Canny said. "How could he have planned to kill Laci and not her unborn infant? Juries do what juries do."

As it stands, the jury apparently accepted the prosecution position that this was a "common sense case" and rejected Geragos' argument that someone snatched Peterson while she walked her dog.

Minimal physical evidence

Prosecutors derided as a "vast conspiracy" Geragos' notion that homeless people in Modesto and transients camped near the bay were involved in the killings. Scott Peterson, prosecutors said, wanted freedom to pursue Fresno girlfriend Amber Frey and other women.

But they had minimal physical evidence tying Peterson to the killing. None of Laci Peterson's blood or bodily fluid was found in the couple's La Loma neighborhood home or in her husband's boat, warehouse or pickup.

The most damning evidence was the body's proximity to Peterson's alibi -- his fishing route the day his wife disappeared.

That "was the only strong evidence they had," Talbot said.

Prosecutors did have hours of secretly recorded calls and televised interviews that cast Peterson as a lying cheat trying to further a romance while his wife was missing.

"The only way a human could function that way if a loved one was missing was if this person was responsible," Canny said. "Clearly, they believed the prosecution's theory in the case. A normal person doesn't act that way."

Geragos also stumbled, some observers insisted. He failed to deliver on expectations that he would produce witnesses who allegedly saw Peterson launch his boat. And he also failed on a promise to prove that Conner Peterson was born after his father had come under police surveillance.

Then there was the obstetrician, called as a defense witness, imploding on the stand.

But Geragos' worst mistake was putting on a defense case, Talbot said, rather than resting to dramatically highlight that prosecutors had failed to prove Peterson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"He accomplished absolutely nothing," Talbot said, "but to strengthen the other side."

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

Bee staff writers Jeff Jardine and Elizabeth Johnson contributed to this report.

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