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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