Cal­i­for­nia jus­tices toss death penalty for Scott Peter­son

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION/WORLD - BY DON THOMP­SON

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.

Scott Peter­son

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