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Details emerge to counter Scott Peterson appeal

Defense attorney Mark J. Geragos looks at prosecutors while seated next to client Scott Peterson in Stanislaus Superior Court during a hearing in May 2003 in Modesto.
Defense attorney Mark J. Geragos looks at prosecutors while seated next to client Scott Peterson in Stanislaus Superior Court during a hearing in May 2003 in Modesto. Modesto Bee file

Scott Peterson is “truly among the worst of the worst” of California’s murderers for callously slaying his pregnant wife and their unborn son in late 2002, state prosecutors said this week in a blistering reply to the Modesto man’s death sentence appeal.

Even as his mother-in-law prepared to host a Christmas party to which they were invited, Peterson “weighted down his wife’s lifeless body and dumped her in the (San Francisco) Bay in the hope that the forces of nature would carry the evidence out to sea,” the 519-page document says. “(Peterson) did not care one whit for the wife who vowed to love him for a lifetime or his child waiting to be born.”

Peterson, then 30, later was convicted in a trial that intrigued people around the globe and arrived on death row in March 2005. Attorneys hired by his family filed his official appeal in July 2012, and he turned 42 in October.

California has not had an execution in nine years, and 749 condemned prisoners were on death row as of Jan. 5.

Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when her Christmas Eve 2002 disappearance captured the attention of well-wishers far and wide. Her husband said he went fishing alone and she was gone when he returned.

Revelations of his affair with Amber Frey of Fresno turned public sentiment against Scott Peterson, and authorities arrested him after the bodies of mother and unborn child washed ashore nearly four months later. His celebrity attorney from Los Angeles, Mark Geragos, was unable to convince jurors that Peterson had nothing to do with the killings.

His new attorneys argued in the 2012 appeal that evidence “was anything but overwhelming” and charged that Judge Alfred Delucci, who since has died, made several missteps warranting a new trial. This week’s response from the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris attempts to provide point-by-point answers.

For example, the appeal says Delucci should have:

▪ Kept dozens of prospective jurors in the pool even though they professed misgivings about the death penalty, because some may have been willing to overlook their own views in some cases.

The response details information on each prospective juror in question, some of whom said they would never impose a death penalty because of moral or religious reasons and others who would have no income if forced to participate in a trial expected to last several months. One “repeated that she ‘vehemently’ opposed the death penalty”; another said when questioned before the trial, “I’ve assumed he’s guilty” and “I don’t believe his alibi”; and another said capital punishment is “barbaric and uncivilized and an embarrassment to this country.”

Such approaches never would be appropriate in a death penalty trial, and Delucci was wise to dismiss them, the response says. Also, with peremptory challenges, or without needing to explain why, Geragos legally could have excused any of the jurors ultimately chosen, but he did not, the response says.

▪ Excluded testimony about a certified dog finding Laci Peterson’s scent at a Berkeley Marina pier. Geragos had referred to such evidence as “voodoo,” “nonsense” and the equivalent of “pin the tail on the donkey.”

The response counters that “there exists no stronger testament to (the dog’s) capabilities” than the fact the bodies came ashore not far away.

Besides, “the prosecution presented overwhelming evidence” of Peterson’s guilt, the document says, including his “highly suspicious behavior inconsistent with” that of a worried father-to-be. For example, Peterson subscribed to pornographic television programs less than two weeks after his wife disappeared; he sold her vehicle and considered selling their home less than a month later; he stopped mail from being sent to the home; and he used the bedroom they had converted into a nursery for storage.

“(He) knew Laci and Conner were not coming home,” the document says.

▪ Held all jurors to the same standard, rather than dismissing one for talking about evidence outside the courtroom, but not others.

Interviewed separately in the judge’s chamber, most jurors confirmed that the one to be dismissed seemed to relish attention from reporters and had repeatedly chatted about the trial and threatened to taint other jurors, the document says.

“(His) preoccupation with the media was a distraction,” the response reads, and “it was evident that (he) harbored a decided bias against the prosecution.” His “unrepentant attitude and pattern of misconduct” were far worse than other jurors’ unproved indiscretions, the document says.

▪ Allowed a defense video showing the defense team’s experiment of throwing a body overboard, which capsized the boat.

Delucci was wise to bar the video, the response contends, because conditions were different from those suspected in the Peterson case. For example, the boat in the experiment had a higher center of gravity and the man hefting a weighted dummy overboard seemed to try to tip it by leaning on the gunwale, or rim of the boat, the document says.

Also, the judge offered to let Geragos try another experiment with Peterson’s actual boat, with prosecutors watching this time, but Peterson’s camp declined.

Geragos had theorized that vagrants or men in a suspicious van must have killed Laci Peterson and framed her husband by putting her body where everyone knew he had been fishing. But authorities watching Scott Peterson proved that he visited the marina five times in five different rented vehicles as law enforcement officers searched the bay before the bodies were recovered, surmising that he was “checking to see if searchers were looking in the right place.”

Peterson’s attorneys will provide counterarguments as the next step in the appeals process.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

From the prosecution brief

Excerpts from a California Supreme Court brief filed Jan. 26 by state prosecutors supporting the death penalty for Modesto’s Scott Peterson:

▪ When Laci disappeared on Christmas Eve, (Scott) was weeks away from a life-altering event: the birth of his first child – a responsibility that would last a lifetime. Or, so it seemed. During a conversation with (girlfriend Amber) Frey, (Scott) lamented that he had never enjoyed “a prolonged period of freedom from responsibility” in his life.

▪ (Scott’s) statement that he went fishing by himself on Christmas Eve was, indeed, a fish story.

▪ As the search for Laci and Conner expanded to include San Francisco Bay, (Scott) made repeated surreptitious trips to the Berkeley Marina in January 2003, driving a different vehicle every time. He never stopped to talk to anyone at the marina. As the prosecutor argued, (Scott) was checking to see if searchers were looking in the right place.

▪ The condition of the bodies suggested they had been in the bay for a matter of months, and Laci died while she was still carrying Conner. The forces of nature carrying Laci’s and Conner’s bodies ashore constituted unimpeachable evidence that (Scott) did not go to the bay to fish; he went to dispose of his pregnant wife’s body.

▪ One would reasonably expect that if (Scott) had truly been concerned about the disappearance of his wife and child, then he would take some action when he learned that the bodies of a woman and a baby were recovered. He did not. (Scott) never returned Sharon Rocha’s call about the discovery of the bodies.

▪ (Scott’s) penchant for lying was on a par with his unfailing dedication to self-interest. It was also corroborative of his guilt.

▪ There is no requirement that jurors be totally ignorant of the facts of a case, so long as they can lay aside their impressions and render an impartial verdict.

▪ No one, except for (Scott), knew exactly how he positioned Laci’s body in the boat, where he was in the boat, and how he maneuvered Laci’s body into the bay. Contrary to (Scott’s) suggestion, those circumstances mattered very little. What mattered was that, in the midst of his clandestine affair with another woman, (Scott) drove about three hours and 180 miles round-trip from Modesto to go “fishing” for about 45 minutes to an hour on San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve – in a recently purchased boat that he told no one about – on the day his pregnant wife went missing.

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