California justices toss death penalty for Scott Peterson
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Scott Peterson’s conviction for killing his pregnant wife will stand, but the California Supreme Court on Monday overturned his 2005 death sentence in a case that attracted worldwide attention. The justices cited “significant errors” in jury selection in overturning the death penalty but welcomed prosecutors to again seek the sentence if they wish.
Laci Peterson, 27, was eight months pregnant with their son, Connor, when she was killed. Investigators said that on Christmas Eve 2002, Peterson dumped their bodies from his fishing boat into San Francisco Bay, where they surfaced months later.
“Peterson contends his trial was flawed for multiple reasons, beginning with the unusual amount of pretrial publicity that surrounded the case,” the court said. “We reject Peterson’s claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder.”
But the justices said the trial judge “made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase.”
It agreed with his argument that potential jurors were improperly dismissed from the jury pool after saying they personally disagreed with the death penalty but would be willing to follow the law and impose it.
“While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror’s views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” the justices said in a unanimous decision.
They rejected Peterson’s argument that he couldn’t get a fair trial because of the widespread publicity that followed, although the proceedings were moved nearly 90 miles away from his Central Valley home of Modesto to San Mateo County, south of San Francisco.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager did not immediately comment.
She came to fame as one of three prosecutors in Peterson’s trial, but the justices also chastised those prosecutors for not speaking up as the jury selection errors were occurring.
“It is in no one’s interest for a capital case to begin with the certainty that any ensuing death verdict will have to be reversed and the entire penalty case retried,” the justices said.
Peterson, who is 47, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his wife and the seconddegree murder of their unborn son.
“We are grateful for the California Supreme Court’s unanimous recognition that if the state wishes to put someone to death, it must proceed to trial only with a fairly selected jury,” Cliff Gardner, Peterson’s appellate attorney, said in an email.
His well-known trial attorney, Mark Geragos, said he objected at the time to what he said was “clear error” in jury selection.
Geragos said he does not expect prosecutors to retry the penalty phase. “Frankly, I think the only reason that they sought the death penalty was to get a guiltprone jury panel,” he said.
California has not executed anyone since 2006.