A divided jury came together here Monday to decide that Scott Peterson should die for murdering his wife and unborn son, voting for death shortly after reviewing photos of the decomposing bodies of his victims -- Laci Peterson, missing her arms and head, and Conner Peterson, barely recognizable as a fetus.
When the jury had stopped deliberating Friday, foreman Steve Cardosi recalled Monday, six were in favor of death, two were for life in prison without possibility of parole, and four were uncertain.
Soon after they reconvened Monday morning, the panel asked to review evidence, including the photographs of the corpses and one of a pregnant Laci clad in a maternity outfit, smiling broadly, her hands folded on her belly.
“I thought before we made a final vote ... people really needed to look at that,” Cardosi said. “Seeing those on the big screen when it’s 40 feet away from you ... is a little different than putting them down in front of you and seeing them, and seeing that it is, or was, a baby.... We all passed them along, and everybody looked at them.”
The jurors took a vote and then sent a message to Judge Alfred A. Delucchi, saying they had reached a decision.
Laci Peterson’s mother smiled as a court clerk read the verdict. Defense attorney Mark Geragos wrapped an arm around his client. But the courtroom was mostly silent, the mood subdued, even as a crowd gathered outside the San Mateo County courthouse cheered.
Peterson sat expressionless, as he did throughout most of the trial, though he did tear up last week when a friend testified that he was a good man.
The jurors, who a month ago convicted Peterson of first-degree murder in the slaying of his wife and second-degree murder in the slaying of their unborn son, came to their decision following 12 hours of deliberation over three days. The body of Laci Peterson and that of the fetus she was carrying washed ashore along San Francisco Bay four months after she went missing on Christmas Eve 2002.
Three jurors who agreed to speak with reporters after the verdict was read said they were never influenced by the hoopla surrounding the much-publicized case and that they all presumed Peterson innocent when the case began. When it ended, they agreed, he deserved to die.
“Scott Peterson was Laci’s husband, Conner’s daddy -- the one person that should have protected them. And for him to have done it ,” said juror Richelle Nice, her voice trailing off.
The entire process, the jurors said, had been physically and emotionally draining, but “it doesn’t get any harder than today,” said Cardosi, a firefighter and paramedic from Half Moon Bay.
When the jury, which had been sequestered in a hotel, failed to announce a decision Friday, some court watchers speculated that was good news for Peterson, that a jury returning a death verdict would do so quickly.
The jurors said Monday that the panel was simply being careful. As with every jury, the jurors devised rules on how to proceed. Eventually, they imposed time limits on their remarks after some jurors, liberated from days of listening, went on for 30 minutes when they had the floor.
“Any time you put 12 people in a room together and expect them to agree -- to think that would happen easily -- is naive,” Cardosi said.
Until Monday, the jurors never knew one another’s real names. They went by numbers or nicknames.
Juror Greg Beratlis, a youth sports coach from Belmont, said the last six months had included “many sleepless nights, because you want to make the right choice.... It’s a man’s life.” And after he voted to take that life, Beratlis said, he looked Peterson in the eye so Peterson would understand his decision was sincere.
Peterson never took the stand, and Nice, a mother of four who came to call the dead baby Conner “Little Man,” said that was fine with her.
“We heard him,” she said. “For me, a big part of it was at the end -- the verdict -- no emotion. No anything. That spoke a thousand words -- loud and clear.... I heard enough from him.”
Cardosi said he had hoped Peterson might take the stand, offer some reason, some insight.
“I still would have liked to see, I don’t know if remorse is the right word,” Cardosi said. “He lost his wife and his child -- it didn’t seem to faze him. While that was going on ... he is romancing a girlfriend.”
Prosecutors had argued that a future as a suburban father with a boring job -- he was a fertilizer salesman in Modesto -- had haunted Peterson. In the summer of 2002, with his wife seven months pregnant, Peterson met Fresno massage therapist Amber Frey, a slim, blond single mother. The two slept together the day they met and, prosecutors said, Peterson began plotting to kill his wife.
Delucchi could reduce the sentence to life in prison without parole. He is scheduled to pronounce sentence Feb. 25.
If Delucchi does sentence the 32-year-old Peterson to die, he would be housed on death row at San Quentin State Prison, which overlooks the bay where Laci Peterson’s body was discarded.
It would likely be years, even decades, before Peterson would be put to death. In the 26 years since California reinstated capital punishment, the state has carried out just 10 executions. “Obviously, we’re very disappointed,” Geragos said after the verdict. “Obviously, we plan on pursing every appeal and motions for a new trial and everything else.”
Defense attorneys may have several avenues to pursue -- including alleging juror misconduct -- following months of testimony and undisclosed jury-room dramas that led to three panelists being dismissed and replaced with alternates. But the challenges, experts agree, will not be easy.
“The chances of a successful appeal are truly remote,” said veteran San Mateo County prosecutor Chuck Smith. “Only about 3% of such cases ever get reversed in California.”
Many observers believe Peterson’s best hope on appeal may lie in the removal of jurors. One of the jurors removed was Cardosi’s predecessor as foreman.
Cardosi said the panel “went through quite a bit of time that was very ineffective,” shortly before the first foreman was removed. “I think the group decided to change forepersons.” When that happened, the foreman “mentioned that he was no longer comfortable in the process,” Cardosi said, adding that he did not know why the judge released him.
The jury’s decision Monday for the death penalty demonstrated how much had changed in six months.
Geragos, the lead defense attorney, went from boldly claiming that he would reveal Laci Peterson’s real killers -- which he never did, other than to hint at a satanic cult or people at a park -- to begging for his client’s life.
“Raising those kinds of expectations when he didn’t need to was a big mistake,” said Peter Keane, a professor at Golden Gate University’s law school in San Francisco. “He lost credibility with the jury.”
Geragos initially had the Peterson jury “eating out of his hands,” but the jury seemed to tire of his jokes, and the early rapport faded, said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman.
“Mark didn’t get a jury that was exactly his cup of tea, and I don’t think he knew how quite to handle them,” Goldman said.
The prosecution, meanwhile, took a case that lacked any direct evidence tying Peterson to the crime and began laying it out in a fashion some court observers deemed monotonous and unpersuasive. But by the end, the jury had found the prosecution’s case to be a damning litany of circumstantial evidence, and convicted Peterson after six hours of deliberation.
Testifying for the prosecution in the penalty phase, Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, brought at least eight jurors and some court personnel to tears.
She said she was haunted by the mental image of her daughter’s body in its casket, headless and armless.
Prosecutor Dave Harris called Peterson “the worst kind of monster.”
One of Peterson’s attorneys, Pat Harris, grasped for words to dispute that characterization.
“I wish there was a phrase that I could give you that could turn this around and make you believe there is good, there is real, real good in this person,” Harris said. “But I don’t have that phrase ... that’s up to you to decide. So I’m going to ask you ... I’m going to beg you, begging you to go back there and please spare his life.”
Some observers questioned the defense team’s tactic of calling witness after witness who said that the Scott Peterson they knew could not have committed such a crime -- in effect challenging the jury’s wisdom -- and testifying about such esoterica as how much he loved golf.
Beginning shortly after Laci Peterson’s disappearance, millions of Americans came to follow the case, mostly through cable-television court programs.
The investigation and later the trial played out like a serialized mystery. Scott Peterson emerged as the lead character, shown to be a liar, a philanderer and ultimately a murderer.
“I think this case took off because he had an entire town looking for Laci Peterson instead of sitting down for Christmas dinner,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
During the trial, some of the most damaging evidence came from Frey, who began cooperating with police soon after Laci Peterson went missing.
As police searched for his wife, Peterson called Frey repeatedly, telling wild lies of his activities. On New Year’s Eve, as his supporters held a candlelight vigil for his missing wife, Peterson phoned Frey. He told her he was in Paris, watching fireworks near the Eiffel Tower. In reality, he was in Modesto.
Four months after Laci Peterson vanished, the bodies washed up just a mile from where Peterson said he had gone fishing the day she disappeared -- right where a tidal expert said they would be likely to come ashore.
“Those bodies were found in the one place he went prior to her being missing,” juror Beratlis said. “I played in my mind over and over conspiracies: Was somebody trying to set up Scott? Was somebody after Laci? It didn’t add up.”
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California death penalty cases
Although California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, no executions were carried out until 1992. The state’s death row houses about 650 people.
*--* Death Executed Time on Year sentences inmates Crime death row 1978-91 257 None 1992 40 Robert Alton 2 murders 13 years, 1 Harris month during kidnapping, robbery 1993 33 David Edwin 4 murders 9 years, 7 Mason months during robbery 1994 23 None 1995 38 None 1996 38 William George 14 murders 13 years, 1 Bonin month as ‘Freeway Killer’ Keith Daniel 3 murders 17 years Williams 1997 38 None 1998 33 Thomas M. Murder 14 years, 1 Thompson month during rape 1999 42 Jaturun 2 murders 15 years, 9 Siripongs months during robbery Manuel Babbitt Murder 16 years, 10 months during rape, robbery 2000 32 Darrell Keith 4 murders 19 years, 1 Rich month during rapes 2001 24 Robert Lee Murder 21 years, Massie 10 months during robbery 2002 17 Stephen Wayne Murder 20 years, 6 Anderson months during burglary 2003 21 None Total 636 10 16 years, 1 month (average)
The path to execution
Outlined below is a typical process for a death penalty case in which the conviction and death sentence are affirmed at each stage. In general, federal appeals follow the state process.
Trial court death sentence is automatically appealed to state Supreme Court.
Once the state Supreme Court rejects the appeal, the trial court sets an execution date.
Defendant asks U.S. Supreme Court to review state Supreme Court decision.
If any new issues are raised in the federal case, the U.S. District Court sends it back to the state for review.
After claims in state court are rejected, the defendant typically files a federal claim in U.S. District Court.
Defendant appeals U.S. District Court decision to 9th Circuit Court.
Defendant petitions U.S. Supreme Court to review 9th Circuit Court case.
After the U.S. Supreme Court denies the case, the trial court sets an execution date.
Note: The state can file appeals if the conviction is reversed at any stage of the case. Once all appeals are exhausted, the governor considers clemency.
Sources: California Department of Corrections, California attorney general’s Office of Victims’ Services.
Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald
Times staff writers Eric Slater and Maura Dolan, and special correspondent Robert Hollis, contributed to this report.