Scott Peterson Death Penalty Reversed

The Supreme Court for the state of California has issued a unanimous 101 page opinion in the Scott Peterson case. Peterson was convicted of killing his pregnant wife Lacie Peterson, whose decomposed body and that of the fetus who would have been named Conor had he been born alive, were found in the water a mile from where Peterson said he had been fishing months earlier. Peterson was convicted sentenced to death. Cable news followed every detail of the case, night after night, from the day of Laci's disappearance through the trial.

The death sentence was reversed because the trial court judge excluded jurors who were opposed to the death penalty in general, but never questioned as to whether they could put those feelings aside and judge this case by its facts, or whether, should they find Peterson guilty, they would impose the death sentence no matter what. U.S. Supreme Court precedent is clear that the Court must not. [More...]

In sum: The law is clear that a capital jury may include those who, as an abstract matter, oppose — or even strongly oppose — the death penalty, though a prosecutor might seek to limit the number of such jurors. It may include those who favor — or even strongly favor — the death penalty, though defense counsel might seek to limit their numbers.

Eligibility for service does not depend on a juror’s abstract views of capital punishment.
It depends, instead, on the prospective juror’s
willingness and ability to follow a court’s instructions and conscientiously consider both penalties in light of the evidence presented by each side. This is the meaning of the guarantee of an impartial jury, drawn from the community at large, for the trial of a defendant facing the death penalty.

Under that standard, the questionnaire answers submitted by these prospective jurors did not establish they were unfit to serve. Voir dire might have painted a different picture, with the court and counsel through oral questions exploring whether each individual juror had the necessary ability and willingness to consider both life and death as options. But for these 13 jurors, there was no such questioning. Thus, we know only that in the abstract they opposed the death penalty. The record made in the trial court does not offer a basis sufficient to uphold excusal of these jurors for cause under the clear standards laid out by the United States Supreme Court.

The Court rejected Peterson's other challenges to the death penalty phase, as well as his arguments as to flaws in the guilt phase.

California must now decide whether to retry the penalty phase, or accept life in prison without parole for Peterson, if Peterson is willing to accept that. Peterson has always maintained his innocence. He has additional legal options open to him in both state and federal court. Via Yahoo News today:

Peterson can still argue that he was unfairly convicted, using evidence that was not considered at his trial, and if that fails can try again in federal court.

“While we are disappointed that such a biased jury selection process results in a reversal of only the death sentence, we look forward to the Court’s review of the new forensic and eyewitness evidence of innocence,” Gardner wrote.

Geragos said he expects Peterson will eventually be exonerated. “We’re halfway there,” he said

I frequently commented on this case on cable news channels while it was happening. I provided live coverage of the guilty verdict for the Washington Post in November, 2004, including answering readers' questions. Surprisingly, the Post still has it online here.

My personal thoughts on the guilty verdict I are here on TalkLeft:

I do not believe the charges against Scott were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence was paltry at best. He was tarred by being a liar and a cheat. Scott Peterson was tried and convicted in the media, months before the trial started.

There was no murder weapon, no cause of death, no time of death, no identifiable crime scene, no witnesses. And a reconstituted jury that deliberated less than a full business day.

This jury as much said, "Someone killed her and there is no other explanation so it must have been Scott." Shameful. That is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Let the appeals begin. And may the jury spare his life.

Of course, the jury did not spare Scott's life, but the California Supreme Court has, at least until a retrial of the penalty phase and another guilty verdict.

Talkleft has written more than 100 posts (accessible here) on this case and the media attention it garnered, from the day Laci Peterson's body was discovered in 2003 (Scott Peterson was arrested the next day) through 2012 when Mark Geragos gave his closing argument for life instead of death (actual transcript here) and he filed his appeal.

Scott Peterson's 470 page appeal brief is here. The states's 519 page response is here.

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  • Display: Sort:
    No proof of cause of death (none / 0) (#1)
    by MKS on Tue Aug 25, 2020 at 11:37:29 AM EST
    That seems to be the main reason Casey Anthony was declared not guilty of the murder of her daughter Cayley. I do remember a commentator stating the day before the final augments in the Casey Anthony case that the Prosecution had not proven the cause of death, and thinking to myself that was a problem.

    And, for Scott Peterson, he did not get the same result.  Maybe it was the accusation of child abuse suffered by Casey Anthony.  Or the jury liked Casey Anthony, and not Scott Peterson.  I did think Casey's lawyer's final arguments were very good.

    No cause of death leaves open the possibility of an accidental death, or a death that did not rise to the level premeditated murder.  Perhaps Manslaughter.  But First Degree Murder?
     How would one know?

    I believe the Anthony jury was sequestered (none / 0) (#3)
    by McBain on Tue Aug 25, 2020 at 12:24:22 PM EST
    throughout that trial but the Peterson jury was only sequestered during deliberations?  For me, that's reason enough for a new trial.  As is often the case, most of the media coverage was awful. Back then, the media was obsessed with attractive women... Natalie Holloway, Laci Peterson, Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox.

    Laci Peterson looked cute, almost childlike in the media photos.  I believe this, and Scott's affair, got people all riled up and made it difficult for him to get a fair trial.

    I remember Mark Geragos referring to the media as  cheerleaders for the prosecution and HLN as the Hysterical Ladies Network. Those were the days of Nancy Grace and Jane Velez Mitchell.  They made for some entertaining panel discussions with hysterical not being far from the truth. I don't remember ever seeing Jeralyn on HLN.


    Death penalty in California (none / 0) (#2)
    by MKS on Tue Aug 25, 2020 at 11:43:08 AM EST
    is just a symbolic statement now.  No future Governor will likely ever allow executions to resume.

    And, I think prosecutors here do not seek it very often anymore because it just creates a larger burden, without any real additional penalty beyond life in prison.

    I was part of a jury pool a few months ago for a a "capital murder" case.  But the Prosecution was not seeking the death penalty.  

    The prosecutors' purpose in designating (none / 0) (#4)
    by Peter G on Tue Aug 25, 2020 at 12:44:25 PM EST
    a case as "capital," even when they are not really seeking the death penalty, is to get the right to exclude opponents of capital punishment from the jury pool. Prosecutors feel those individuals will in general be "bad" jurors for them.

    Yet, there were no questions (none / 0) (#5)
    by MKS on Tue Aug 25, 2020 at 12:54:12 PM EST
    during Voir Dire (jury selection) regarding that.

    I was there for three days as part of the jury pool--they never asked about capital punishment.  It was an interesting experience.  I was not called to sit in the jury box and was thus asked no questions personally, but heard it all.

    I will say that I was more sympathetic to the prosecution than I expected.  The case received a fair amount of press, and the man was convicted.