Death Penalty Reversed in Scott Peterson Case, but Guilt Remains

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The California Supreme Court on Monday threw out the death penalty in the case of Scott Peterson but left intact the murder conviction.  The state has the option to retry to the penalty phase, but, given the state of the death penalty in California, that may not be a priority.

In recent years there have been rumblings that Scott Peterson might be wrongly convicted.  But the court was not willing to go far enough to order a new trial.

Represented by Cliff Gardner, Peterson contended during the June hearing that his trial was flawed for a number of reasons, starting with the pretrial publicity—however, the court quickly rejected the claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt.

However, the court, in a decision authored by Justice Kruger, found that the trial court “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.”

The court noted that, 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.”

In the view of the court, the trial court in this case “erroneously dismissed many prospective jurors because of written questionnaire responses expressing opposition to the death penalty, even though the jurors gave no indication that their views would prevent them from following the law — and, indeed, specifically attested in their questionnaire responses that they would have no such difficulty.

“Under United States Supreme Court precedent, these errors require us to reverse the death sentence in this case,” the court ruled.

On December 24, 2002, Laci Peterson went missing.  A neighbor saw the Peterson’s dog wandering unaccompanied on the street wearing his leash.  Scott Peterson’s truck was gone, but Laci Peterson’s was still in the driveway.

Police inspected the Peterson home. There were no signs of forced entry, nothing appeared missing, and Laci’s purse was still there.

Peterson told officers he and Laci had watched television that morning, and Laci had planned to walk the dog and go grocery shopping. Peterson decided to go fishing in the San Francisco Bay. He went to his company warehouse where he stored a boat, drove to the Berkeley Marina, fished for two hours, and quit because the day was cold and rainy.

It wasn’t until April that Laci’s badly decomposed body was found.

At the time of the trial, the defense argued that the police had “not diligently pursued whether a person or persons other than Peterson were more likely responsible for Laci’s disappearance and murder.”  The defense “presented evidence that a burglary had occurred on the Petersons’ street the week of her disappearance and argued that the police failed adequately to follow up on whether that burglary had any connection to Laci’s disappearance.”

Nevertheless the jury found Peterson guilty of first degree and second degree murder and held the special circumstances to be true.  He was then, after a separate penalty phase, sentenced to death.

In examining the jury selection process, the court notes that the record “reveals that many jurors were summarily excused based on their responses to a single question, No. 109: “How would you rate your attitude towards the death penalty?””

The court notes that “these answers alone offered little insight into the controlling issue for purposes of their qualification to serve as jurors — whether they, whatever their general views on the death penalty might be, could accept and follow the court’s instructions and be able to choose either life or death based on a sincere consideration of any aggravating or mitigating circumstances.”

The trial court excused more than a dozen prospective jurors based solely on their written opposition to the death penalty.

Further, the record shows “defense counsel consistently resisted these dismissals, arguing on numerous occasions that just because a juror indicated opposition to the death penalty, that did not mean he or she could not vote for death in appropriate circumstances. These objections gained no traction with the trial court, and ultimately the defense had no choice but to accede to the for-cause standard the court had adopted.”

The court here finds, “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.”

Peterson, however, asks the court to go further: “He argues that the errors in jury selection affected all parts of his trial, not just the penalty phase, and rendered the results of the jury’s guilt phase deliberations unreliable as well.”

While there has been a general belief that death qualifications produce juries more likely to convict, the court here points out that the US Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court “have previously declined to take this additional step” and they argue there is “no persuasive ground for doing so here.”

The court notes, “The United States Supreme Court in Witherspoon rejected the argument that errors in death qualifying a jury necessarily undermine its guilt phase verdict in addition to its penalty judgment.”

Invoking surveys and academic studies, Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968) had argued that “the kind of juror who would be unperturbed by the prospect of sending a man to his death . . . is the kind of juror who would too readily ignore the presumption of the defendant’s innocence, accept the prosecution’s version of the facts, and return a verdict of guilt,” and thus his jury was biased as to guilt too.

But the court was not persuaded on this point.

While the court considered it “self-evident” that errors in death qualification would undermine the jury’s impartiality “in its role as arbiter of the punishment to be imposed,” Witherspoon’s studies “failed to show that the same was true of the jury in its different capacity as finder of fact.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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25 thoughts on “Death Penalty Reversed in Scott Peterson Case, but Guilt Remains”

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          For those actually interested…

          There is some evidence that Laci was seen after the time when Scott would have left. There were reports she was walking the dog around 10 am, about the time of a burglary across the street and her dog was found on its leash alone by neighbors.

          There is question about the timeline of death and the science using to determine fetal growth.

          The main evidence is still demeanor evidence which is unreliable and the location of the body – but the duration between the time when she went missing and the body was found was long enough that another party had plenty of time to put the body in a location where it would draw suspicion towards Scott. By then his fishing habits were well known. No evidence of where the murder took place.

          I’m not saying I’m sold on innocence here, but I am not convinced he is guilty at this point.

        2. Keith Olsen

          So somebody robbed their house, took Lacy’s body and saved the corpse so they could later deposit it into the bay after they found out Scott Peterson was a fisherman in order to frame him.  In the meantime Scott dawned a fake disguise and took off towards Mexico with a fake ID, lots a of cash and camping equipment in is car.

          OJ didn’t do it either.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            “So somebody robbed their house, took Lacy’s body and saved the corpse”

            No.

            No one robbed their house – there was no sign of robbery. The burglary was across the street.

            Again – the key pieces of evidence are (A) eyewitness accounts of Laci walking the dog after Scott left and (B) the forensic tests on the fetus indicating the timeline of when the murder would have occurred being off from the prosecution’s theory.

        3. Alan Miller

          I’m guessing if his profession were police officer you wouldn’t be entertaining his innocence, along with . . . no one else on Earth.  This wasn’t about guilt/innocence anywhoo, just a technicality of sentencing.  Maybe you should write an article about why his sentence should be reversed.  That should be entertaining.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            “no one else on Earth”

            Actually that’s not true – you might want to read Mark Godsey’s series in psychology today from a few years ago.

            The Supreme Court threw out the penalty – this is not a technicality – because the judge improperly dismissed jurors that were against the death penalty. Despite the court’s ruling, those same jurors would have been more likely to have looked at the evidence more skeptically. It’s unfortunate that the court wiffed on that point, imagine if they dismissed a bunch of David Greenwald’s in favor of a bunch of Keith Olson’s, would that also have an impact on guilt in addition to penalty? I would think so.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            What you want is if you’ve been wrongly imprisoned to have David investigating your case. A lot of people agree with that who are actually in that position.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Not if you commit a crime. If you actually committed a crime, you’re SOL. If you’re innocent however, you have a chance.

        4. Keith Olsen

           imagine if they dismissed a bunch of David Greenwald’s in favor of a bunch of Keith Olson’s

          Who’s Keith Olson?

          Us ‘en’s never get along with the ‘on’s.

        5. Alan Miller

          the judge improperly dismissed jurors that were against the death penalty. Despite the court’s ruling, those same jurors would have been more likely to have looked at the evidence more skeptically.

          Why do you say that?  Wouldn’t people with someone’s life in their hands look at the evidence skeptically?

          imagine if they dismissed a bunch of David Greenwald’s in favor of a bunch of Keith Olson’s,

          I’m don’t know about your point, I’m just super scared now, after reading the metaphor.

        6. Alan Miller

          What you want is if you’ve been wrongly imprisoned to have David investigating your case. A lot of people agree with that who are actually in that position.

          Testimonials?

        7. David Greenwald Post author

          “Why do you say that?  Wouldn’t people with someone’s life in their hands look at the evidence skeptically?”

          The studies have basically shown that people who are opposed to the death penalty are more likely to acquit while people who support the death penalty are less likely to acquit.  The court relied on case law that I think is dated enough that it didn’t really take that evidence into account.

  1. David Greenwald Post author

    Some of the claims made about where the body was found are actually pretty problematic.

    Mark Godsey in his article:

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/blind-injustice/201812/is-scott-peterson-innocent-part-three

    Notes: “There were three types of “scientific” evidence presented by experts at Scott’s trial, including a hydrologist’s conclusions regarding water drift and where Laci Peterson’s body would have been dumped in the water, the estimate of Connor’s fetal development to show the date of his death, and the reactions of dogs trained to detect the scent of Laci Peterson when taken to the marina where the prosecution alleged that Scott departed in his boat to dump her body in the bay.”

    He argues each of these are problematic and argues what happened is that ” the experts were made aware by the prosecution of the “right answer” before they started.”

    The hydrologist estimation is critical because it calls into question the idea that hte body was dumped in the area where Scott had been fishing.

    ” this “tidal expert” admitted on the stand that he had done no studies, and that he had no expertise, education or practice with respect to the movement of bodies in water. Further, he was well aware of the prosecution’s theory regarding where Scott had allegedly dumped Laci’s body, and where both Laci and baby Connor’s bodies had eventually washed ashore. ”

    So the basis for the claim that the body was dumped in the location of his fishing is based entirely on specious grounds.

    Then there is the time of death for baby Connor.

    The doctor determined he died on December 24.  ” He reached this conclusion based on a formula developed by Dr. Phillippe Jeanty, who “wrote the book” on this discipline, and which involves measuring fetal bones and comparing them to the last known ultrasound to determine when the bones stopped growing. Before he began his analysis, Dr. DeVore was told that the prosecution believed Connor died on Dec. 24. So not only did the risk of confirmation bias set in, but worse, to reach the conclusion that would match the prosecution’s theory, Dr. DeVore used the wrong mathematical formula and didn’t measure the correct fetal bones.”

    The experts re-examining put forward the possibility that he may have been alive as late as Jan 3 and definitely past December 24, if that’s the case, then the prosecution’s theory of the case is blown up and it supports the theory that Laci was kidnapped.

    Based on this, the entire case is now called into question.

    1. Alan Miller

      Real question (really) — is there any chance the case itself will be retried, based on the criticism of the original analyses?  I certainly agree with the problematic nature of confirmation bias.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        At this point they would have to go through a habeas route or some other post conviction process since the direct appeal route is pretty much over. I would say it’s unlikely but not impossible.

  2. David Greenwald Post author

    Keep point, after re-reading Mark’s article is that people keep saying they found the body where he fishing.  No.  They found the body in the water and a person extrapolated where the body would have been dumped – but that determination was contaminated by expectation and appears to be completely junk science.

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