Peterson spends his days in isolated monotony

12/24/2007 12:38 AM

09/11/2014 1:58 PM

A few times each month, Scott Peterson walks from his cell in San Quentin's East Block to the death row visitation area.

Along the way, he gets a glimpse of the very top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County.

Modesto's most famous killer once enjoyed much greater panoramas: the state's finest golf courses, the Pacific Ocean, lakes and streams. Oh, and yes, the very same stretch of San Francisco Bay where the 35-year-old former fertilizer salesman discarded the bodies of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner, five years ago this morning.

Now, to Peterson and the 621 other residents of the state's most notorious purgatory, that limited window to the world might as well be a glimpse of Yosemite's El Capitan.

"If they've been here 25 or 30 years, it's the only thing they've seen," said Eric Messick, a lieutenant for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "And there's no breach anywhere where (inmates) can see the bay."

Barring a successful appeal, this is your life, Scott Peterson.

Peterson's case captivated the nation and mesmerized people worldwide. Laci, with her infectious smile, and Scott, hailing from a well-to-do San Diego-area family, appeared to be the perfect couple in the perfect marriage, with baby about to make three.

But his veneer began to peel soon after she vanished Christmas Eve 2002, revealing a man who had lied to his pregnant wife while carrying on an affair with a woman in Fresno. He lied to his girlfriend, too. And he lied to police investigators. Those lies quickly made him the prime suspect in Laci's disappearance, and led to his arrest.

The jury determined that Prince Charming, indeed, was truly a cold and calculating killer who simply erased his wife and unborn son from his life to get them out of his way.

Found guilty with special circumstances (multiple victims), Peterson then became a resident of another American fascination: San Quentin's death row.

Peterson has not responded to repeated interview requests by The Bee.

His days are compartmentalized into sleeping, meals and TV in his 6-by-8-foot cell, along with exercise time in one of death row's small and segregated yards.

The notoriety he experienced throughout the case began to dissipate pretty much the moment he entered East Block in August 2005, after a few months in transitional housing as he adjusted to prison life. To the state, he's just another murderer -- no different than dregs such as Richard Allen Davis, Charles Ng, Richard Ramirez, Cary Stayner and others who made misery and headlines on their way to death row.

"(Other death row) inmates knew who he was," Messick said. "But it wasn't like he showed up on death row and was anything special among his peers. They might have had a bit of curiosity and animosity -- especially because he doesn't seem underprivileged. The vast majority of these guys come from underprivileged backgrounds."

There's no star treatment among the 622 guests of death row -- only grades of A, B or C, based on their behavior in captivity.

Peterson is a grade A.

"He's actually pretty well-behaved," Sgt. Rudy Luna said. Luna spent years working on death row, and has had many talks with Peterson. "He's very polite. His cell's clean. He follows the rules. He doesn't cause any drama. He's a very boring person as far as being an inmate."

During his trial, Peterson bore the expression not of a murder defendant but of a casual observer. He seemed emotionless and detached.

"He does his time that way, too," Messick said. "Like he's in Disneyland (in a dream world)."

He has plenty of time to kill. Death is not an immediate concern for Peterson. His parents have hired private attorneys to handle the habeas corpus part of the appeal. His attorneys can roam outside the court record to look for new evidence, conduct new tests or question the competence of the defense team in an attempt to reverse the decision and force a new trial.

"Since he is innocent, we don't want him sitting there any longer than he has to," father Lee Peterson told The Bee in December 2005.

Reached last week, his mother, Jackie Peterson, deferred comment to appellate attorneys.

But the Petersons haven't hired anyone to pursue the direct appeal, which is limited to reviewing the court record from the trial in an attempt to find judicial error as a means of overturning the verdict. Direct appeals are mandatory to the death penalty process. Habeas corpus appeals are not, but must be filed within 60 days after a direct appeal is denied.

While the lawyers maneuver, Peterson simply exists.

He gets three squares a day -- two hot meals in his cell and a bag lunch he can take to the yard. Shortly after settling into his East Block digs, Peterson began to shed pounds. Luna visited him.

"He was new, and I wanted to make sure he wasn't being extorted (giving up his lunch under the threat of another inmate)," Luna said. "He said he was doing it on purpose. He wanted to lose weight."

Condemned inmates have set visiting hours. Some, such as Peterson, are fortunate to have periodic visitors. He receives about three visits per month.

"Family members," Messick said.

Other inmates aren't so fortunate.

"Geography has a lot to do with it for these guys," he said. "Some parents never come and see them on death row. They might send a check once a month, but never come to see them. There are lots of condemned from Southern California, from underprivileged backgrounds. They can't afford collect phone calls (from inmates). But there are also plenty of guys on death row from similar backgrounds (to Peterson's), coming from middle class with mothers and fathers."

Visitors go to an area designed specifically for the condemned -- a series of individual rooms with plexiglass walls. The visitor enters first, then the inmate. They're allowed an embrace at the beginning and the end of the visit.

Family and friends can send money, which inmates can spend at the prison store, and you might be surprised to know what they're allowed in their cells.

Death row inmates can have a 13-inch TV, a radio-compact disc player, an electric typewriter with a 7K memory (but no computers) and a UL-approved steam cooker that allows them to prepare food in their cells. They can spend as much as $180 a month for personal items, stationery, soda, candy, snack foods, packaged meats and fish, and other goodies.

They also can order books through approved vendors, and that expense isn't counted within the $180 monthly allowance, Messick said.

And they manage to collect other items -- some not so legal.

"Their cells are searched and inspected on the average of every other day," Messick said. "Even the best-behaved inmates seem to accumulate contraband."

Peterson is strip-searched and handcuffed before leaving his cell and again before returning. He has law library privileges but doesn't take advantage of them, Messick said. He does spend four to five hours a day in a 20-by-40-foot exercise yard segregated by affiliations and behavior, hanging out with the same group of inmates -- none of them a household name.

The walls are so high, the inmates see nothing but the sky and, on many days, fog.

He has almost no contact with other inmates that isn't in plain view of the guards. Hence, the grocery-store tabloid fodder suggesting that Peterson has AIDS and linking him with serial killer Ramirez simply is not true, Messick and Luna said.

"You hear (in the tabloids) about him getting stabbed or sexually violated," Messick said. "I've never heard of that here."

"Just yesterday at the supermarket, I saw the stuff about him and Richard Ramirez," Luna said. "The lady (checkout clerk) was telling me all about him. She didn't know where I work. These guys don't even have any contact. It's a big misconception."

Peterson stops to shower on the way back to his cell from the exercise yard. Dinner arrives at 5 p.m., and soon the shadows creep across San Francisco Bay and up Mount Tam.

It's a sundown Peterson won't see. The view from death row is lousy.

Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service