Penalty Phase for Peterson Underway

Times Staff Writer

The jury in Scott Peterson’s murder trial today heard emotional testimony from Laci Peterson’s closest relatives, including her mother, Sharon Rocha, who glared at the defendant through tears, raised her voice and said, “Divorce is an option, not murder.”

In testimony that had at least eight jurors wiping tears, Rocha said that she spent her first Mother’s Day after the murder laying on the floor in her home, crying all day. She said she will never forgive Peterson for taking away her daughter and grandchild and the way he did it.

She said, “Every morning when I get up I cry.... I miss her. I want to know my grandson, I want Laci to be a mother. I want to hear her called Mom.”

The jury heard testimony today in the opening day of the penalty phase, in which the prosecutor said death was “the only appropriate justice” for Peterson, a 32-year-old Modesto fertilizer salesman. He was convicted this month of first-degree murder in Laci’s death and second-degree murder for killing the couple’s unborn son, Conner.

Laci Peterson disappeared on Dec. 24, 2002. Her body was found about four months later on the shores of San Francisco Bay, near where Peterson had told police he had been fishing on the day she was first reported missing.

With Peterson seated about 10 feet in front of her, Rocha turned to the defendant and said, “Laci always got motion sickness, and you knew that. So you put her in the bay, where she would be sick for all eternity.”

Rocha also spoke about the emptiness the family has felt since her daughter was killed. The family members, including Laci’s stepfather, brother and sister, all testified about “Laci’s big smile.”

They said it was there when her mother looked at her out of the crib as an infant, when her braces were removed in junior high school, her first day of teaching when a student brought her an apple, and on her last birthday on May 4, 2002.

“Laci didn’t deserve to die,” Sharon Rocha said.

The dramatic testimony came after the prosecutor gave a brief statement to the jury.

“When the defendant dumped the body of his wife into the bay, those ripples spread out and touched many lives,” prosecutor David Harris said to the same panel that convicted Peterson and will now decide whether he should be put to death or sent to prison for life.

With Christmas just a few weeks away, Harris noted that for the family of Laci Peterson, “their holidays will never be the same.… There’s a hole in their hearts that can never be repaired.”

He also told the jury how Laci’s mother waited 116 days not knowing where her daughter and grandson were or if they’d be coming home.

Robert Talbot, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said the opening statement “was to the point and said that this case will focus on victim impact. They could have gone after Scott.”

Judge Alfred A. Delucchi told the jury that in addition to considering the circumstances of the crime and the defendant’s history and character, “you may also consider lingering or residual doubt.”

Peterson’s attorney, Mark Geragos, was expected to appeal to any doubts that jurors might have by arguing that there was no physical evidence linking Peterson to the crime. During the guilt phase of the trial, he emphasized that there was no weapon, no sign of struggle.

The defense postponed its opening statement until after the prosecution’s presentation. The penalty phase was expected to last about four days.

When jurors walked into the courtroom and passed the defense table today, they avoided eye contact with Peterson. He, however, looked at each of their faces.