The California Supreme Court on Monday overturned the death penalty for Scott Peterson, who was convicted of killing his wife, Laci, in 2002 and their unborn son.
In a decision written by Justice Leondra Kruger, the state’s highest court said the death sentence must be removed because the trial judge wrongly discharged prospective jurors who expressed opposition to capital punishment but said they would be willing to impose it.
“Before the trial began, the trial court made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase,” Kruger wrote.
“While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror’s views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” the court said.
Peterson had argued that massive pretrial publicity deprived him of a fair trial. But the court upheld the guilty verdict, and said prosecutors may retry Peterson on the sentence if they wish.
Peterson’s trial was moved to San Mateo County after a judge found he could not get a fair trial in Modesto. Peterson’s appellate lawyer argued the trial should have been moved again after questionnaires of 1,000 potential jurors in San Mateo County showed many already were convinced Peterson was guilty.
Laci Peterson, 27, was due to give birth in four weeks when she disappeared on Christmas Eve. Scott Peterson told police he had left their Modesto home that morning to go fishing in Berkeley.
Nearly four months later, Laci’s remains and the body of her unborn son, with the umbilical cord still attached, washed up on a rocky shore on San Francisco Bay. A passerby walking a dog found them a few miles from where Scott Peterson said he had gone fishing.
Laci’s disappearance had sparked a massive search. At first her family did not suspect Scott. That changed after a massage therapist named Amber Frey told police that she and Peterson had been dating, and that he had told her his wife had died. She then secretly recorded calls with him for the police.
Police arrested Peterson in San Diego County. He had bleached his hair and goatee and was carrying $15,000 in cash.
Prosecutors told jurors that Scott either strangled or suffocated his wife on the night of Dec. 23, 2002, or the following morning. He wrapped her body in a blue tarp, put her in the back of his boat, affixed anchors to her and dropped her in the bay, they said.
Mark Geragos, who defended Peterson at trial, argued Laci had been kidnapped by strangers who dumped her in the bay to frame her husband.