Even before the start of the jury’s tumultuous deliberations in the Scott Peterson murder trial, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Alfred A. Delucchi was worried. “I feel like I’m sitting on a powder keg,” he said.
Some would call that an understatement.
In the week and a half since they started, the deliberations have become so contentious that two jurors, including the foreman, have been booted off the panel. Some jurors were scolded by the judge for experimenting with evidence and admonished not to let biases get in the way of their work.
On Wednesday, the county’s chief investigator was called in to deal with some additional but unspecified problems involving the jury.
That same day, the tumult in the courtroom cascaded out onto Redwood City’s streets, where someone had parked a boat a block from the courthouse that was similar to the one allegedly used by Peterson to dispose of his pregnant wife’s body. Sprawled inside the boat was a headless dummy clad in overalls and attached to cement anchors.
The boat was left on property owned by Peterson attorney Mark Geragos, who was accused of trying to manipulate public sentiment and possibly the jury.
Before the boat was towed away Wednesday night, it had been covered with flowers and candles left by locals in memory of Laci Peterson, whose body washed up in April 2003 near where Peterson said he had been fishing on the day she disappeared.
Today, as the sequestered jury resumes deliberations, some legal experts are wondering whether a panel that appears, at least from the outside, divided and surrounded by controversy can reach a unanimous verdict. The stakes could not be higher for Peterson, who could face the death penalty if convicted.
“It all puts a really terrible face on our legal system and the way it handles high-profile cases,” said former San Mateo County prosecutor Chuck Smith. “And if the jury arrives at a verdict, one way or the other, it is going to be tainted by all these episodes of chaos.”
In the meantime, Delucchi’s courtroom continues to be bombarded with telephone calls and faxes from mysterious tipsters claiming to know “who really killed Laci.”
Like “Nicole and O.J.,” “Monica and Bill” and “Chandra and Gary” before them, “Laci and Scott,” have become standard conversational fare in households across the nation. Many of the same celebrity lawyers, former prosecutors and talk-show hosts who popped up regularly during the O.J. Simpson trial have returned to analyze the Peterson case nightly on cable TV, with some of them even becoming main players in the unfolding drama.
Geragos, who had appeared more than once on “Larry King Live” excoriating Scott Peterson, later became the fertilizer salesman’s lead attorney.
Attorney Gloria Allred, who had represented the family of the slain Nicole Brown Simpson, also has landed a role in the Peterson case.
Peterson, it turned out, had been hiding a lover -- massage therapist Amber Frey -- just down the road in Fresno, and Frey chose Allred to bring her out of the shadows.
Now, Allred and legal consultants with ties to Geragos, along with an army of criminal trial experts, take to the airwaves day and night, offering instant analyses of everything that happens inside and outside of the Redwood City courtroom.
“This case wants to be another O.J., in that it tries to generate as much publicity as it can,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School.
“In a post-O.J. world, some trials don’t just occur inside the courtroom -- there are spin artists inside, as well as outside,” she said.
Robert Pugsley, professor of criminal law at Southwestern University School of Law, was more blunt: “The media has become an intruder in legal processes, and explodes public awareness -- and lurid interest -- in trials that should be settled in courtrooms, not television studios or the streets of the city in which the case is being held.”
“We should care because it corrupts justice,” he said, “by turning trials into TV game shows or reality television, when, in fact, they involve life-and-death matters being decided by ordinary people doing their best to reach a verdict without being influenced.”
It remains to be seen whether such tactics will make a difference in the Bay Area town of Redwood City, which until the Peterson trial was an unremarkable bedroom community of 80,000 people with red-brick, turn-of-the-century architecture and electric street arches proclaiming “Redwood City Climate Best by Government Test.”
In recent months, the city’s downtown has been transformed. Media tents have sprouted on the courthouse grounds and crowds gather early each morning in hopes of scoring one of the 27 courtroom seats up for grabs by raffle each day.
Among the regulars is Marlene Newell, who has attended three-quarters of the trial.
“This trial feels like a circus,” Newell said, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mistrial.
“If that happens, how on earth will they ever pick an objective jury, even in a place like Los Angeles?” she wondered aloud Thursday. “Gosh, it took three months just to seat this jury.”
The basic prosecution case is not all that complicated. Peterson allegedly killed his 27-year-old wife and used a new 14-foot aluminum fishing boat to dump her body in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002. Prosecutors say he began plotting to kill his wife a month earlier after starting an affair with Frey.
The defense maintains that Peterson had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance or death. Geragos claims she was kidnapped by strangers, perhaps members of a satanic cult or homeless people from a local park, who framed his client.
Tall, tan and supremely confident, Geragos began each day of the trial by wrapping an arm around Peterson’s shoulder and whispering humorous asides in his ear. His handling of the case has gotten mixed reviews.
While many observers think he did an excellent job of raising doubts before trial, others found his closing arguments lackluster and wondered why he had abruptly ended his six-day case after calling only 14 witnesses.
In what some considered vulgar language, Geragos urged jurors during his closing statement to stick to the evidence and not to prejudge his client even though he “cheated on his wife and feels like a 14-karat [expletive] for doing it.”
Prosecutor Rick Distaso, a former military lawyer from Modesto with a studious demeanor, didn’t get rave reviews either. His thorough but uninspired style seemed to some to be excessively dry as he steadily presented his case, which was almost solely based on circumstantial evidence.
In his closing remarks, however, Distaso surprised many in the audience by giving a passionate, forceful and coherent argument that some trial court analysts compared to a fiery church sermon.
The prosecution’s case lasted 19 weeks, called 174 witnesses, and featured hundreds of tape-recorded telephone conversations between Peterson and Frey, who became a star witness for the prosecution.
The jury now has the option of acquitting Peterson, 32, or finding him guilty of first-degree or second-degree murder. Anything short of a unanimous verdict would result in a mistrial and, perhaps, a second trial.
Some trial analysts speculate that the dismissed jurors may have been standing in the way of a verdict, and that without them, a decision could be imminent. Others, however, shake their heads in dismay over the fact that the jury has lost three members since June -- two of them this week.
With three alternates left and rumors flying that yet another juror wants off the panel, legal analyst Paula Canny was only half-joking when she said, “At this rate, the jury will run out of alternates by Tuesday.”
“If we lose three more,” she said, “there isn’t going to be a verdict, and the whole thing starts over again.”
Times staff writer Mark Arax contributed to this report.
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The jury as it now stands Man in his 30s or early 40s; coaches youth sports. Middle-aged man; consulted a priest over death penalty. Woman in her 30s; social services worker. Man in his 40s. Former police officer and U.S. Marine. Retired man; daughterÕs fian-ce once worked for Petersons. Man in his 20s or 30s; a fire-fighter and paramedic. Mother of four in her 30s; has nine tattoos. Woman about 40; also a social worker. Woman about 40; married convicted murderer. Man in his 50s; a Teamster who works nights. Woman in her 40s; an ac-countant. Middle-aged woman with a raspy voice.
Sources: San Francisco Chronicle; Modesto Bee; Times reporting