California’s Supreme Court has reversed the death penalty for Scott Peterson who was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Laci and their unborn son 18 years ago.
The state’s highest court on Monday overturned Peterson’s 2005 death sentence but upheld his murder conviction.
Prosecutors may try again for the same sentence if they wish in the high-profile case.
Peterson was found guilty in 2004 of killing his 27-year-old wife Laci Peterson and their unborn son Conner on Christmas Eve two years prior.
Her husband led the search for her for months but was arrested after Laci’s badly decomposed body and the fetus of their son washed up on a San Francisco shoreline in April 2003.
Peterson, who authorities say dumped the bodies off the side of his fishing boat, has been on death row since 2005.
In the ruling on Monday, the court said Peterson’s death penalty conviction was being removed because the trial judge made ‘clear and significant errors’ in jury selection that meant Peterson did not receive an impartial trial.
The court agreed with Peterson’s 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.
Peterson, who is now 47, contended on appeal that he couldn’t get a fair trial because of the massive 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.
He also had contended on appeal that the trial court erred in deciding whether jurors and the defense were properly allowed to test whether Peterson’s new boat would likely have capsized if he dumped the weighted bodies over the side.
‘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 and said he does not expect prosecutors to retry the penalty phase.
California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to the way it would carry out the death penalty and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has a moratorium on executions for as long as he is governor.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager did not immediately say if she would again seek the death penalty.
Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his wife and the second-degree murder of their unborn son.
Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when she went missing in December 2002.
Her husband had said he’d left their Modesto, California, home that day for Berkeley, where he took a small aluminum motor boat out for some fishing in San Francisco Bay. When Peterson returned home that night, he said he called his mother-in-law to ask if Laci was there before subsequently reporting her missing.
Investigators chased nearly 10,000 tips and considered parolees and convicted sex offenders as possible suspects after Laci was reported missing.
A massive search, bolstered by members of the tight-knit Modesto community, was organized while police investigated. Eventually, the bodies of Laci and her unborn son, who was to be named Conner, washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay.
The fetus washed up first and had a nylon rope around the neck and a large cut on the body. Laci’s body washed ashore a mile away the following day with tape wrapped around her torso.
Both bodies were too decomposed to determine cause of death.
Investigators later determined that Peterson dumped them from his fishing boat into San Francisco Bay.
Peterson was eventually arrested after Amber Frey, a massage therapist living in Fresno, told police that they had begun dating a month before his wife’s death.
She told authorities that Peterson had told her his wife was dead.
A controversial six-part docuseries called “The Murder of Laci Peterson” the aired on A&E in 2017 appeared to suggest that Peterson was railroaded.
The docuseries pointed to witnesses who claim they saw Laci walking their dog the afternoon she disappeared, which is when her husband would have been off fishing.
The defense argued that Laci’s death was likely connected to a burglary that occurred across the street from the house she shared with her husband.