Scott Peterson has been on California’s death row since 2005 after being convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the 2002 slaying of his pregnant wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner. California’s Supreme Court on Monday reversed the death sentence but found that the trial itself was fair and the murder convictions still stand.
The reversal is a surprising legal victory for Peterson, for now. While he might not be getting the death penalty any time soon, a new sentencing trial has been ordered.
The decision does not overturn Peterson’s murder conviction and allows the prosecutors to try again for the death penalty.
In an automatic appeal, which was filed with the Supreme Court in 2012, the court found that potential jurors were dismissed erroneously, in part because they expressed general objections to the death penalty on a questionnaire.
“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 opinion said.
The justices concluded that nothing on the questionnaire would keep the dismissed jurors from voting for the death penalty if the case justified it.
“The death sentence must be reversed, and the People given another opportunity to seek that penalty before a properly selected jury if they so choose,” the opinion states.
The case has been remanded to Stanislaus County Superior Court to complete the sentencing.
On Christmas Eve in 2002, the family of Scott Peterson was subject to intense scrutiny as Laci, his 27-year-old wife, who was eight months pregnant with their first child, went missing from the family’s Modesto home.
The monthslong search for Laci which included 10,000 tips to investigators, went quiet until a woman who had been having an affair with Peterson came forward. In April 2003, Laci’s body and that of her son washed up in the San Francisco Bay. Shortly after the discovery, Scott Peterson was arrested.
The trial that followed revealed many dark secrets about Scott Peterson including damning testimony from Amber Frey, the woman the accused had been engaged in a months-long affair with.
Frey worked with prosecutors, taping phone calls with Peterson. During the trial, she testified for several days about her relationship with Peterson, her realization that he was still married and that his pregnant wife, Laci, had vanished. Frey called police in Modesto, California, in late December 2002 to disclose the affair.
The explosive testimony proved crucial to court proceedings. The trial ended in conviction and Peterson was handed the death sentence.
The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office has not said whether they will seek the death penalty again.
“In deciding whether to seek a new death sentence, the question for prosecutors now is whether they can prove Mr. Peterson culpable for this crime to even a single juror seated through a fair jury selection process,” Cliff Gardner, attorney for Peterson said.
John Goold, a spokesperson for the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, said, “We are reviewing the decision and will discuss with the victim’s family.” The district attorney’s office has not said whether it will seek the death penalty again.
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As Peterson awaits sentencing, the possibility of him receiving the death penalty and the State of California carrying it out is uncertain.
In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on the death penalty. The moratorium is only in effect while Newsom is in office. CNN reports that, California hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006.
The date for the new sentencing trial has not been set.
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