Scott Peterson became a household name when he was charged in the killing of his wife, Laci Peterson, who was pregnant with their son, Conner Peterson. Today, Peterson’s death penalty was overturned by the California Supreme Court.
Peterson’s conviction still stands but he will be granted a new sentencing phase after the court found a judge on his case “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,” according to Fox News.
Laci Peterson disappeared from her Modesto, California home on December 24, 2002. Scott Peterson was subsequently charged in her murder in April, 2003. Following a five-month trial, a jury found Peterson guilty and sentenced him to death.
Scott Peterson is now 48 years old. He is on death row at the San Quentin State Prison in California, according to prison records.
Prosecutors in the Peterson case contended Scott Peterson murdered his wife at their home in Modesto on the night of December 23 or the morning of December 24. Then, they said, he dumped her body in the San Franciso Bay. The body of Peteson and her fetus washed ashore after a storm in April, prompting murder charges to be filed. The defense team for Peterson argued that Laci was still alive December 24 when Scott Peterson drove to the marina, according to an appeal filed in his case.
ABC 20/20 is revisiting the high-profile case with interviews with Scott Peterson himself and with Amber Frey. Peterson was having an affair with Frey. The new episode, “One Last Chance,” airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time Friday, May 14, 2021.
Here’s what you need to know:
Scott Peterson’s Murder Case Was on Automatic Appeal to the California Supreme Court & He Was Granted a New Sentencing Phase
Scott Peterson’s conviction was upheld by the California Supreme Court following an appeal, but his death penalty was overturned. The court found the trial judge on his case “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,” according to Fox News.
The appeal filed in Peterson’s case, which you can read in full here, makes 19 claims arguing that Scott Peterson is innocent. Laci Peterson disappeared on Christmas Eve in 2002, and it would be four months before her family would have any inkling what became of her. A late spring storm dislodged the remains of Peterson and her unborn child. Over the course of two days, the remains washed ashore on April 13 and 14, 2003, according to the appeal filed in the Peterson murder case.
Because it was four months before Laci Peterson’s body was found, there was no forensic evidence tying the body to Scott Peterson. The state of California relied on three key pieces of evidence based on testimony from expert witnesses. An expert in fetal growth testified evidence indicated the unborn child, Conner, was killed December 23 or 24. The evidence was collected from Conner’s leg bone. Another witness testified to dog scent evidence. A dog alerted at the Berkeley Marina, indicating Scott Peterson transported his wife’s body to the marina. Thirdly, a hydrologist testified to body movement in the bay. The witness said Laci Peterson’s body was left at Brooks Island, exactly where Scott Peterson told police he was fishing.
“In light of this evidence the jury convicted of murder and sentenced Scott to death. It turns out, however, that the jury deciding this case did not have the whole truth — or anything close. As discussed below, it turns out that every part of the state’s forensic evidence was false,” Peterson’s attorneys wrote in the appeal.
The appeal picks apart each element of the state’s case. Peterson’s lawyers argue the expert witness who testified about fetal growth was applying the wrong formula to the wrong bones. The length of Conner’s leg bone indicates Laci Peterson was alive until at least January 3, 2003, the appeal said. A dog handler incorrectly misinterpreted the K9’s position and gait when the handler said the dog alerted to a scent, the attorneys argued. The hydrologist’s testimony was “fundamentally flawed,” the attorneys wrote. Laci Peterson’s body could have been deposited in two separate locations, including a tidal area near a freeway.
The attorneys contend in the appeal that police told each of the expert witnesses their theory, and the witnesses found evidence to match that theory. They further argued Peterson’s trial lawyers promised to call witnesses who reported seeing Laci Peterson days after she was reported missing, including neighbors who said they saw Laci walking her dog. Another witness, Todd, said after Laci Peterson’s disappearance, she saw him burglarizing a house and confronted him. He reported threatening her during the confrontation. None of those witnesses were called, the appeal said.
Scott Peterson Is on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison, Which Has the State’s Only Gas Chamber
Scott Peterson is on death row at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, according to his prison records. His parole eligibility is listed as “condemned” because he is on death row. Peterson was admitted into the prison March 17, 2005. He is now 47 years old.
The prison has the state’s only gas chamber. But if Peterson is executed, it would be by lethal injection. However, it will be years before Peterson could be executed. Peterson’s murder case is on automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court. You can read his appeal here. The case has not yet been scheduled for oral arguments, which could take years. California also has a moratorium on executions, which will stand at least as long as Governor Gavin Newsom holds his office. He was elected to an four-year term, which began in January 2019 and signed the moratorium in March. He could be re-elected to serve another four-year-term.
Scott Peterson’s sister-in-law, Janey Peterson, told The Modesto Bee she was relieved by the stay of executions, but said it may not help his appeal.
“Clearly, it’s a relief,” she said. “But it’s hard to understand how it’s going to impact our case, because the reality is that Scott’s execution day wouldn’t fall within Governor Newsom’s term. It wouldn’t be scheduled within those eight years.”
California has not executed an inmate for more than a decade, the newspaper reported.
San Quentin State Prison is located just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The prison was built in July 1852. The prison was constructed by inmates, who spent their days building the prison and their nights sleeping on a prison ship, the Waban, according to the California Department of Corrections. The 432-acre prison overlooks the bay. It has four cell blocks.
“San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest and best known correctional institution, which was established on the site currently known as Point San Quentin, in July of 1852, as an answer to the rampant lawlessness in California at the time. During its construction, inmates slept on the prison ship, the Waban, at night and labored to build the new prison during the day. San Quentin housed both male and female inmates until 1933 when the women’s prison at Tehachapi was built. The prison rests overlooking the bay on 432 acres, and is located just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the county of Marin. The walled prison is made up of four (4) large cell blocks (West, South, North, and East Block), one (1) maximum security cell block (the Adjustment Center), Central Health Care Service Building, a medium security dorm setting and a minimum security firehouse. The state’s only gas chamber and death row for all male condemned inmates are located at San Quentin,” the California Department of Corrections wrote on the San Quentin State Prison website.