Scott Peterson Case

Retiring Peterson attorney won’t see conclusion of blockbuster case

Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson’s mother
Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson’s mother

A key Scott Peterson attorney will leave his legal team before the California Supreme Court rules on the Modesto man’s death sentence appeals.

“I’m retiring,” said Lawrence Gibbs, 65, who recently filed a motion to withdraw from representing Peterson. Another attorney will take Gibbs’ place, he said, and Peterson’s defense team will stay the course.

They just ran out the clock on me.

Lawrence A. Gibbs, appeals attorney, Berkeley

Peterson, now 44, was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son at Christmastime 2002. The sensational trial riveted attention across the United States and beyond on Modesto; the case was moved to Redwood City in the Bay Area because publicity had saturated this area.

As with all death row defendants, Scott Peterson’s legal requests have proceeded on two tracks. The first is called a direct appeal, and the second, a habeas corpus review, or simply “habeas.”

The direct appeal is based on what happened at trial and largely focuses on the judge’s rulings, including which evidence to leave in or out and which jurors to keep or excuse, and it asks for a new trial. Attorney Cliff Gardner filed this appeal in 2012; the state Attorney General’s office, representing prosecutors, responded in 2015, and Gardner replied for Peterson the same year. Both sides await scheduling of oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

Gibbs, meanwhile, was working on Peterson’s habeas petition, another type of appeal seeking a defendant’s release. A habeas request can feature new evidence, evidence that should have been presented at trial, or errors by defense counsel. Filed in late 2015, Peterson’s claimed that a juror lied for the opportunity to punish him, and it attacked the performance of Mark Geragos, Peterson’s celebrity defense attorney.

Prosecutors are expected to respond by year’s end, after which Peterson’s new habeas attorney will reply in kind based on the heavy lifting that Gibbs already has done.

We will remain in very competent hands.

Janey Peterson, sister-in-law to Scott Peterson

“We will remain in very competent hands,” Janey Peterson, the defendant’s sister-in-law, said Thursday. “From a family perspective, we feel fortunate that we’ve always had counsel, including Mark Geragos, with open lines of communication and we’re grateful for that.”

Gardner’s direct appeal criticized alleged missteps by Judge Al Delucchi, who died of cancer in 2008. He improperly excused prospective jurors who professed misgivings about the death penalty but should have allowed some who were willing to overlook their own views to impose capital punishment in some circumstances, the appeal said.

Also, Delucci played favorites by dismissing some impaneled jurors while keeping others, and the judge should not have allowed unreliable and “highly prejudicial dog scent evidence,” the appeal said.

Gardner in April said oral arguments could be scheduled anytime in the next five years or so. He spoke to an audience at a screening of “Trial by Fury: The People v. Scott Peterson,” a documentary reflecting the defense point of view, which apparently has yet to be picked up by a film distributor.

(Jurors) fairly concluded that he, in an unmitigated act of selfishness and arrogance, extinguished two beautiful lives.

Prosecution response to appeal

Gibbs’ habeas petition said juror Richelle Nice, nicknamed “Strawberry Shortcake” by trial observers for her flamboyant hair dye, had been assaulted while pregnant before the trial but lied about the attack on prospective jury questionnaires. She later fixated on the unborn boy, Conner Peterson, in six letters sent to Scott Peterson on death row, including one in which she visualized what the boy might have looked like, the document said.

Gibbs said witnesses might have testified that they saw Laci walking her dog, and Laci that day also confronted a burglar across the street; both happened after her husband left to fish, Gibbs said, and either might have crumbled prosecutors’ version of events, but neither story was vetted at trial, the habeas said.

Gibbs also tracked down a doctor who invented a way to compute gestational age and who concluded that Conner probably died from Jan. 3 to Jan. 5, 2003; if true, his father must be innocent, the document said.

Gibbs has more than three decades of post-conviction work. His former clients include Erik Menendez, who was convicted with his brother, Lyle, of murdering their parents in Beverly Hills in 1989, and Sarah Jane Olson, a Symbionese Liberation Army member who eluded authorities for two decades before her capture in 1999 and release 10 years later.

In prosecutors’ response to the direct appeal, deputy state Attorney General Donna Provenzano stood up for Delucchi, “an experienced and respected jurist” who gave Peterson a fair trial, she said.

Fueled by the trifecta of selfishness, arrogance and wanderlust, Scott Peterson decided to take matters into his own hands.

Prosecution response to appeal

“Fueled by the trifecta of selfishness, arrogance and wanderlust, Scott Peterson decided to take matters into his own hands” and killed Laci and Conner, Provenzano wrote, blaming Scott’s yearning to be free from marriage and impending fatherhood.

No juror contacted by The Modesto Bee through the years has second-guessed the verdicts of guilt and the death penalty.

Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, last year advocated for a statewide initiative, embraced by voters in November, calling for fast-tracking of future death sentences. California has not had an execution since 2006, and 749 condemned prisoners were on death row as of March 2.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390