Scott Peterson’s wife, Laci Peterson, was eight months pregnant when she went missing in Modesto, California, on December 24, 2002. Her disappearance resulted in a frenzy of media interest, which only intensified after it was revealed Scott Peterson had been cheating on his wife.
Four months after Laci vanished, her body, and that of her unborn son, Conner, were found on the shores of San Francisco Bay, where Peterson had said he went fishing on Christmas Eve. He was arrested and charged with murder shortly after this discovery.
Though Peterson has always maintained his innocence, on November 12, 2004, he was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Laci and the second-degree murder of Conner. On March 16, 2005, he was sentenced to death for these crimes. He was incarcerated on death row at California’s San Quentin State Prison, where he remains today.
In 2020, after Peterson’s appeals had worked their way through the court system, two momentous decisions came down regarding his convictions. One overturned his death sentence. The other may result in a new trial.
Peterson no longer faces the death penalty
The California Supreme Court, having reviewed Peterson’s appeal, overturned his death sentence on August 24, 2020. This decision was made because the judge who oversaw Peterson’s 2004 trial erroneously dismissed potential jurors who said they were opposed to the death penalty.
[Watch The Murder of Laci Peterson on the A&E website and apps.]
“Just because you have a view on the death penalty, pro or con, does not mean you can’t hear a case,” Michael Benza, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law, tells A&E True Crime. “The question about bias is, can you put your personal view aside and decide this case based on the law?”
To obtain another death sentence for Peterson, prosecutors would need to go through a new penalty phase trial. Benza explains, “In capital cases we basically have two trials. You have the guilt or innocence determination. And if the person is found guilty of a capital offense, they would have another trial in front of a jury as to what the sentence should be.”
In May 2021, the Stanislaus County District Attorney decided not to pursue the death penalty again for Peterson, in part because prosecutors did not want to make Laci’s family go through another trial.
Peterson is still at San Quentin
Peterson has to be re-sentenced because his death sentence was overturned. For now, he remains on San Quentin’s death row, even though he is no longer a condemned inmate.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced new restrictions, but otherwise Peterson’s life at San Quentin has been similar for the past 16 years.
He inhabits his own cell. He has five hours of daily recreation time. He receives visits from friends and family. He has access to the law library. And he adheres to prison regulations. Dana Simas, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), tells A&E True Crime, “Scott Peterson has no rules violations while in CDCR custody.”
Once re-sentenced, Peterson could be moved to another California prison. “When San Quentin State Prison officials receive the court’s re-sentencing documents, CDCR classification officials will review his case factors to determine where he will be housed,” says Simas. “All housing decisions for all incarcerated people are made on a case-by-case basis based on their classification score and custody level, and taking into account that person’s security, medical, psychiatric and program needs.”
Prosecutors are ready to hold Peterson’s sentencing hearing. However, his lawyers need to coordinate with their client, and are wary of losing access to him at San Quentin. One of his attorneys, Cliff Gardner, tells A&E True Crime, “We are spending the time necessary with Mr. Peterson to proceed on the case, the ever-changing COVID restrictions permitting.”
Accusations of juror misconduct
Another pending legal matter for Peterson is his habeas corpus petition. Habeas corpus involves going back to court and litigating claims that did not happen in the record, meaning facts that were not part of the original trial can be introduced. Peterson’s habeas petition included the claim that one juror, Richelle Nice, lied to get on the jury for his 2004 trial so she could “punish him.”
Nice was asked during jury selection if she’d ever been involved in a lawsuit, or if she or anyone close to her had been the victim of a crime. She responded in the negative. However, she had requested a restraining order in 2000 after accusing her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend of stalking and threatening her. In addition, Nice’s ex-boyfriend was arrested on domestic violence charges for allegedly assaulting her in 2001. Nice was pregnant during both of these incidents.
“We spend a lot of energy, in capital cases especially, picking the jury to make sure we get the most fair jury for both sides that we can,” Benza says. “Defense lawyers could say, ‘If we had known she was a victim of a crime, we would have challenged her for cause, because we don’t think she could be fair.’ Therefore, she should have been excused because she is biased against Mr. Peterson, and therefore we need a new trial with an unbiased jury.”
In a 2017 interview, Nice declared, “I did not lie to get on this trial to fry Scott [Peterson]. I did not.” Nice maintains she didn’t see herself as a victim. “When I filled out that questionnaire, my situation never came into my mind because it was not similar at all.”
A response to Peterson’s habeas petition submitted by California’s Attorney General asserted that it was reasonable for Nice not to view a restraining order as a lawsuit.
Will Scott Peterson get a new trial in 2021 or 2022?
On October 14, 2020, the California Supreme Court ordered the Superior Court of California, County of San Mateo, to consider whether Nice “committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings, including but not limited to being the victim of a crime.”
Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo will conduct an evidentiary hearing regarding Nice’s conduct. This hearing likely will not happen before November 2021, and may even be pushed back to 2022.
Benza notes it’s not uncommon for juror misconduct to result in a new trial. “Sometimes jurors, for many reasons, will not reveal all of the details of their life that are necessary to decide whether they can be fair or not. Sometimes that’s in favor of a defendant—they don’t reveal that they’re a death penalty abolitionist and they’re going to always vote ‘no’ against the death penalty, but they know if they say that they can’t be on the jury. That’s prejudicial to the prosecutor…. But you usually see them in the other direction, where jurors want to be on a trial, because they want to decide the fate of the defendant.”
Peterson now has to wait for Judge Massullo’s decision. If it’s determined that Nice was a “stealth juror” with her own agenda, Peterson should be able to present his case to a new jury. Laci’s family dreads the possibility, but Scott Peterson’s family, specifically his sister-in-law Janey Peterson, is looking forward to a new day in court, believing new evidence will prove he is innocent.
Janey Peterson, who is married to Scott’s brother Joe, said she believes new evidence will allow Scott to go free in an interview with the Today show on August 25, 2021.
“There’s evidence that was completely ignored that shows Laci was alive after he left for the day,” Janey Peterson said.
Janey Peterson’s theory is that Laci had a confrontation with men who were robbing a house across from the Peterson home. The burglars were investigated and cleared. The theory was part of Scott Peterson’s trial and appeal, but was rejected by the court.
Scott Peterson’s case, including work done by Janey Peterson to get him a new trial, was the subject of the 2017 A&E docuseries, The Murder of Laci Peterson.