Scott Peterson pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that he murdered his pregnant wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner, a crime police and prosecutors say took place in the couple’s Modesto home in the days just before Christmas.
“I am not guilty,” a cleanly shaven Peterson said after Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ashley read the charges against him, which could lead to the death penalty.
In documents filed Monday along with the complaint, police allege that Peterson killed his wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time, at their home on Dec. 23 or 24. Prosecutors did not reveal what led them to that conclusion or whether they have a motive for the killing.
Just hours after the arraignment, Laci Peterson’s family, which had spent Easter weekend in seclusion, made a wrenching appearance before reporters. Her mother, Sharon Rocha, said she had lost her “best friend.”
“I can only hope that the sound of Laci’s voice begging for her life, and for the life of her unborn child, is heard over and over and over again in the mind of that person every day for the rest of his life,” Rocha said, her voice choked with emotion. She and other family members avoided mentioning Scott Peterson by name.
The defendant’s parents visited him in the Stanislaus County jail and emerged to tell reporters that they believe he has been wrongly accused.
“My son is innocent, and it is going to come out,” said father Lee Peterson. “I am confident of that.”
Peterson was arrested Friday in his car near San Diego, shortly before law enforcement authorities had confirmed that the bodies of a woman and fetus that washed ashore in San Francisco Bay were Laci Peterson and the couple’s unborn son.
The bodies were found a day apart less than four miles from the spot where Peterson told police he had embarked on a fishing trip on Christmas Eve, leaving his wife at their modest bungalow home.
The 30-year-old fertilizer salesman was led in and out of the courtroom in a red jumpsuit, the color reserved for the most violent prisoners, his wrists chained in front of him. He was being kept in isolation because other prisoners have threatened him, authorities said.
Peterson did not make eye contact with members of his or his wife’s families.
The two families -- once united in the initial search for Laci Peterson after she was reported missing by her stepfather on Christmas Eve -- sat across the aisle from each other in the front row.
Laci Peterson’s family broke their staunch support of their son-in-law after it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair. The woman came forward to say he told her he was not married.
In court, Scott’s mother, Jackie Peterson, and Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha, wept throughout the brief proceeding. Before the hearing began, Jackie Peterson went over to Rocha and leaned over to hug her.
Rocha hesitated at first, but then returned the embrace.
“I told her how sorry I was for their loss,” Jackie Peterson said later. “It was our loss too.”
The gesture was an awkward moment during an emotional day for both families, who were all escorted out of back doors of the courthouse by sheriff’s deputies, to avoid the media swarm.
Hours later at the Modesto police station, Laci Peterson’s family and friends appeared before scores of reporters.
“Laci and her unborn child did not deserve to die,” Sharon Rocha said. “They certainly did not deserve to be dumped in the bay and sent to a watery grave as though their lives were meaningless.”
Rocha said she knew something terrible had happened as soon as she learned her only daughter was missing.
“I made a promise to [Laci], that if she has been harmed, we will seek justice for her and Conner and make sure that the person responsible for their deaths will be punished.”
Whoever committed the murders, Rocha said, should be “punished for the tragedy and devastation forced upon so many people.”
Rocha’s husband, Ron Grantski, told reporters the family is withholding comments about Peterson to ensure that he receives a fair trial: “We owe it to Laci to let the courts bring the facts out. I’m not going to say anything that could jeopardize the hard work of so many men and women.”
Grantski said Peterson’s parents “don’t deserve this. But Laci and our family don’t either.”
Stanislaus County Dist. Atty. James Brazelton said the trial likely will not take place for a “couple of years.” The preliminary hearing, at which the prosecution presents its evidence, may not occur until midsummer.
On Friday, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said he believed the prosecution would be a “slam dunk.”
On Monday, Brazelton declined to discuss the evidence investigators have gathered in the case.
As for Lockyer’s comments, which drew ire from Scott Peterson’s parents, the county prosecutor said he didn’t know “what the attorney general was thinking.”
Although prosecutors have not yet said whether they will seek the death penalty, the alleged double homicide has been classified as a capital case. A bail hearing is set for May 6, although Peterson would be ineligible for bail if the court rules the capital murder charge is justified.
In addition to his not guilty plea, Peterson also denied he had acted “intentionally, deliberately and with premeditation.”
Peterson was appointed a public defender, Tim Bazar, after he told the judge he could no longer afford to pay his private attorney, Kirk McAllister.
Peterson was arrested near a La Jolla golf course, at the wheel of his parents’ Mercedes-Benz and carrying about $10,000 in cash, according to law enforcement sources.
His dark hair had been dyed blond and he had grown a beard. He was within 30 miles of the Mexican border, and authorities feared he might flee.
After his wife was reported missing, Peterson told authorities he had towed his 14-foot aluminum boat to the Berkeley Marina to go fishing on Christmas Eve.
He came under increased suspicion when he traded in his wife’s car for a new pickup truck, and later admitted to an extramarital affair.
After the skeletal remains were found, investigators began watching him around the clock.
After he and his wife visited their son, Lee Peterson said Scott “has not been able to grieve properly for his wife and baby.” He added that police have “misled” Laci Peterson’s family by arresting their son.
Laci Peterson’s family said they are making funeral arrangements, and bracing for her birthday. On May 4, she would have turned 28.