Laci Peterson’s remains were found washed ashore four months after her disappearance, and her body was badly decomposed. The body of her unborn child, Conner, was found largely intact. Peterson’s cause of death was never determined due to the decomposition, but prosecutors argued that Scott Peterson suffocated his wife.
Scott Peterson’s death penalty sentence was overturned in 2020, and his defense team is seeking a new trial. In April 2021, they were granted a 60-day extension for discovery in the case. ABC’s “20/20” is revisiting the high-profile case with interviews with Scott Peterson and with Amber Frey, with whom Peterson was having an affair.
The new episode, “One Last Chance,” aired at 9 p.m. Eastern time Friday, May 14, 2021.
Here’s what you need to know:
Laci Peterson’s Autopsy Gave Little Indication How She Died But Provided Some Clues
The remains of Laci Peterson were badly damaged and decomposed, and her head and limbs were missing, ABC News reported in 2003. Dr. Brian Peterson, who performed the autopsies of Laci Peterson and her fetus, described the fetus’ remains as “very soft” and said they “came apart very easily” in testimony reported by the Sioux City Journal in 2004.
“Dr. Peterson speculated she may have died from strangulation or smothering which could leave behind no forensic evidence, but it was impossible to be sure because her head and neck were missing, as well as her forearms, most of both legs and all internal organs, except for the uterus,” the Sioux City Journal reported.
A November 2015 appeal filed in Scott Peterson’s case points to the lack of evidence in the autopsy and the absence of Laci Peterson’s cause of death in the investigation as two of several reasons why Peterson’s conviction should be reconsidered.
“There was no cause of death. There was no murder weapon. There was no confession,” the appeal said. “Nevertheless, on April 18, 2003, Scott was arrested and charged with the capital murders of his wife and child.”
Prosecutors theorized that Scott Peterson murdered his wife in their home and that he killed her by suffocation, court documents said. While the defense team argued that Scott Peterson had no motive to kill his wife or unborn child, the state argued that he did so either for financial reasons or to have freedom from his wife and child. The appeal laid out the state’s theory in how Laci Peterson died.
As noted above, the state’s theory was that Scott killed Laci in their home between the night of December 23 and the morning of December 24. Absent any evidence on the cause of death, the state theorized that Scott suffocated Laci. According to the state, Scott put the leash on McKenzi and let him loose in the neighborhood so that it would appear that Laci had been abducted while she walked the dog. Then Scott moved the body to his Modesto warehouse by putting it in the toolbox in the back of his truck. At the warehouse, Scott then attached homemade cement anchors to the body and placed it in the back of his 14-foot boat which he then towed to the Berkeley Marina. Finally, the state claimed, when he got to the marina he launched the boat and, once on the bay, he pushed the body (with the anchors) overboard.
Officials Disagreed on the Meaning Behind a Piece of String Found Wrapped Around the Unborn Child’s Neck
The Petersons’ unborn son, whom they planned to name Conner, provided more evidence into her death than his mother’s own body. The fetus was found separate from his mother’s body, and it was largely intact, according to the article from the Sioux City Journal.
“My conclusion … is that Conner had likely been protected by the uterus,” Dr. Peterson, the pathologist, said in testimony. He believed Conner’s body was expelled sometime after Laci Peterson’s body was placed in the water.
“According to the autopsy, the skin of the child was not decomposed at all, though the right side of his body was mutilated, and the placenta and umbilical cord were not found with the body,” ABC News reported in 2003.
One contentious piece of evidence was a piece of string wrapped around the baby’s neck. The defense team argued that the body of the fetus was cut from the mother’s womb and strangled with a piece of string. However, Dr. Peterson argued the string likely wrapped around the body of the fetus in the water.
“Truly, I believe that for whatever reason Laci met her demise, it was her death that caused the death of (Conner Peterson),” he said, according to SFGate.
This information, coupled with Peterson’s due date, helped investigators to determine when she died, according to SFGate. Dr. Alison Galloway, a fetal growth expert, measured two of the baby’s leg bones and one arm bone to estimate the age of the fetus. She determined the fetus had a gestational age of age of 33 to 38 weeks. Investigators concluded Peterson was killed on December 23 or 24.
“Laci Peterson’s obstetrician testified earlier in the trial that her due date had been estimated at Feb. 10, 2003, but had been moved back to Feb. 16, 2003 during her second trimester,” the SFGate article said. “Prosecutors said in their opening statement that Laci Peterson was about 33 weeks pregnant when she disappeared.”