Scott Peterson, the 32-year-old fertilizer salesman convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son, was sentenced to death Wednesday morning in a chilling courtroom drama tailor-made for a case that has transfixed the nation.
Speaking on behalf of her dead daughter, Sharon Rocha looked Peterson in the eye and told him what she believed went through Laci Peterson’s mind as she was murdered and her body dumped in San Francisco Bay -- words, Rocha said, that she hoped would “haunt you forever.”
“I trusted you, I believed in you, you promised to take care of me,” Rocha said, as if channeling her dead daughter. “I want to be your wife and the mother of your baby.... Scott, I want to live. I don’t want to die.... Please stop, please stop, I don’t want to die.”
The atmosphere in the courtroom was electric as Rocha and Peterson faced off and the anguished woman gave voice to Conner, the grandson she would never cradle in her arms. Conner, she told the impassive defendant, was probably thinking, “Daddy, why are you killing Mommy and me? I don’t know you yet, but I love you.”
The riveting court procedure -- interrupted by the angry shouts of Peterson’s parents -- became a public face-off between two grieving families separated by violence and the chasm of class.
Relatives of Laci Peterson, 27 years old and eight months pregnant when she disappeared on Christmas Eve 2002, repeatedly told Peterson that he was selfish, evil and arrogant. Peterson, they said, thought that his privileged youth made him “better than everybody else” and that he could get away with not one, but two, murders.
Peterson’s parents, precluded by Superior Court Judge Alfred A. Delucchi from speaking in court Wednesday, were reduced to shouting their son’s innocence from their seats before they left the packed gallery.
Rocha excoriated her dark-suited former son-in-law before an emotional Delucchi sentenced him to death.
She taunted him for what she described as his betrayal and his treachery and detailed the depth and breadth of her loss.
“I’ll never meet my grandson,” she said. “I’m left to wonder ... what costume would Laci get him for his first Halloween? Would he cry when he got his picture taken with Santa? What would be in his Easter basket?”
Filled with melodramatic twists, lurid details and photogenic main characters, the case has captivated the media and the public from its heart-wrenching beginning.
Made-for-TV elements included an exhaustive search for the missing Laci, employing horses, dogs, divers, rafts, hundreds of volunteers, thousands of fliers, a hefty reward and the FBI.
Televised pleas from tearful relatives begged for her return.
There was an adulterous husband poised to go on the lam, the other woman who went to the authorities and the tape-recordings of their intimate phone conversations, filled with his lies and played in Room 2M of San Mateo County Superior Court.
Defense attorneys blamed Laci’s death on a satanic cult or a band of homeless people who dumped her body in the bay in an effort to frame her innocent husband. Jurors were dismissed at key times under mysterious circumstances.
For months, hundreds of would-be spectators queued up in the early morning chill for empty seats in the crowded courtroom and a ringside view of crime history in the making.
The biggest draw during the trial was the testimony of former masseuse Amber Frey, who took the stand in August to tell about her affair with Peterson.
And even at the bitter end, after a 5 1/2 -month trial in which the six-man, six-woman jury voted that Peterson be put to death, his attorneys filed one last motion in an effort to get the proceedings scuttled and start from scratch.
In court documents filed Feb. 25 and made public Monday, defense attorney Mark Geragos put forth 13 reasons to give Peterson a new trial, including new evidence, jury misconduct and decisions by Delucchi that broke for the prosecution.
Geragos and prosecutor David Harris argued the motion for a new trial in court Wednesday as most of the jurors who convicted Peterson looked on.
Delucchi then detailed his objections to each of Geragos’ issues, ruled that Peterson was appropriately convicted and began the sentencing hearing.
Peterson declined to speak on his own behalf. Geragos asked the judge to allow Peterson’s parents to speak, reasoning that they, too, were victims, having lost a grandson. A terse Delucchi denied the request: “It was not their daughter who was murdered.”
Brent Rocha, Laci’s brother, was the first member of the victims’ family to face the man who had left them bereft.
“You thought you were better than anyone else,” Brent Rocha scolded, “more entitled and more privileged. I never would have thought it would have led to murder.... Is it because your parents gave you money? You had a good golf game?”
After months of reticence, Lee Peterson, Scott’s father, could take it no longer. “He’s a liar!” the distressed man called out. Delucchi admonished him to be silent, and the older man ran out of the courtroom.
Jackie Peterson, Scott’s mother, gave a muffled cry before she too raced away. Some spectators thought she said, “He didn’t do it.”
Brent Rocha picked up where he left off. “I chose not to kill you myself for one reason,” he told Peterson. “So you have to sweat it out and not get the easy way out. I’m grateful I made the right decision.”
Other family members followed.
“You’re a monster,” Laci’s sister, Amy Rocha, told Peterson.
“You’re going to pay for what you have done, not only in this life but for eternity,” said Laci’s sister-in-law Rose Rocha.
Dennis Rocha, Laci’s father, struggled to tamp down the profanity that erupted when it came his turn to address the court. Her stepfather, Ron Grantski, had the same problem.
But when it was all said and done, it was Grantski who had the last word Wednesday, as he gathered with family and members of the prosecution team outside of the courthouse.
The sentencing was over. Peterson was headed for death row. The legal experts and former jurors had had their say. It was his turn to speak again.
“Our family is going to make it,” he told reporters. “We’re stronger because of this. And Scott got what he deserved.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Dec. 24, 2002: Scott Peterson’s wife, Laci, is reported missing in Modesto. Peterson tells police he was on a solo fishing trip to San Francisco Bay when she disappeared.
April 13, 2003: The body of a fetus is discovered in Richmond, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.
April 14, 2003: A passerby finds the body of a woman at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond.
April 18, 2003: Peterson is arrested in San Diego. State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer confirms that the bodies have been identified as those of Laci and her unborn son.
April 21, 2003: Peterson pleads not guilty to two counts of murder at his arraignment in Stanislaus County.
Jan. 20, 2004: At the request of the defense, a change of venue to San Mateo County is granted.
June 1, 2004: The trial begins in Judge Alfred A. Delucchi’s courtroom in Redwood City.
Nov. 12, 2004: The jury convicts Peterson of first-degree murder for the death of his wife and second-degree murder for the death of the fetus.
Dec. 13, 2004: The jury calls for Peterson’s execution.
March 16, 2005: Delucchi confirms the jury’s death sentence.
Sources: Modesto Bee; Times reports
Los Angeles Times