Scott Peterson was convicted today of first-degree murder in the slaying of his pregnant wife, Laci, and second-degree murder in the killing of their unborn son.
Peterson looked straight ahead as the verdict was read. He had no immediate visible reaction. Meanwhile, Sharon Rocha, Laci's mother, sobbed as her son Brent wrapped his arm tightly around her. The side of the courtroom where Laci's family and their supporters sat erupted in sobs and sighs of relief.
The jurors appeared emphatic about their decision when polled as part of court procedure. On their way out, several jurors nodded and smiled at Rocha.
Outside the courtroom, where hundreds of onlookers gathered, there were cheers and fist-pumping. When Peterson's mother, Jackie, left the courthouse, someone screamed at her: "I hope they fry your son." Peterson's father was not at court today.
The verdict means Peterson faces the possibility of death by lethal injection or life imprisonment without parole. The penalty phase of the trial is due to start Nov. 22 and the judge, Alfred A. Delucchi, has said it will take less than a week. Delucchi sent the jury into recess with a reminder that the gag order was still in place and sternly warned members not to discuss any of their thoughts with the media.
The verdict was reached after more than five months of testimony and several dramatic turns during jury deliberations. The 12-member jury began deliberating Nov. 3 in Redwood City, Calif. But this week, two jurors were removed and replaced by alternates, meaning deliberations had to begin anew.
Laci Peterson, 27, was about 7 1/2 months pregnant when she disappeared. Her husband reported her missing on Dec. 24, 2002. Peterson said he had gone fishing alone that day, but investigators believe the fertilizer salesman killed his wife and used his boat to dump her body in San Francisco Bay. Her remains and those of her fetus washed ashore separately in April 2003, near the area where Peterson told investigators he had been fishing.
Prosecutors suggested that Peterson, 32, killed Laci because he was tired of his marriage, feeling pressure from her pregnancy and wanted to continue his affair with Amber Frey.
"He wants to live the rich, successful, freewheeling bachelor life. He can't do that when he's paying child support, alimony and everything else," prosecutor Rick Distaso told jurors in closing arguments. "He didn't want to be tied to this kid the rest of his life. He didn't want to be tied to Laci for the rest of his life. So he killed her."
Defense attorney Mark Geragos admitted that Peterson was a "cheat, a jerk and a liar" but said that did not make him a killer. Geragos argued that someone else killed Laci, and investigators failed to follow other leads in her disappearance and slaying.
"You're not supposed to just decide this case on whether or not you like Scott Peterson," he said in his closing arguments.
Circumstantial Case Fueled by Peterson Behavior
In closing arguments, the prosecution said it believed Peterson strangled or smothered Laci but admitted it could not be proven. The defense stressed that prosecutors did not have any decisive physical evidence tying Peterson to the slayings.
Prosecutors argued that at least one hair fragment found in pliers recovered on Peterson's boat belonged to Laci. The defense disagreed and disputed the validity of the tests on the hair fragments. There was no blood evidence.
Because of the lack of physical evidence, prosecutors had to rely on a largely circumstantial case that was built on Peterson's multiple lies and details of his arrest. From Frey's testimony and her wiretapped phone conversations with Peterson, jurors learned the fertilizer salesman told her he wanted them to be together and told elaborate lies to keep his marriage secret.
Before Laci's disappearance, Peterson told Frey he was a widower and preparing to celebrate his first Christmas without his wife. During one phone conversation -- which took place as investigators and volunteers were searching for Laci -- Peterson told Frey he was in Paris on a business trip.
Peterson, prosecutors also argued, looked like someone trying to elude authorities when he was arrested on April 18, 2003. Normally clean-shaven and dark-haired, Peterson had grown a mustache and goatee and bleached his hair. In addition, he had purchased a car using his mother's name, had $15,000 cash, a large backpack, and an overnight bag stuffed with hunting knives, a water purifier, snorkeling and fishing equipment, a shovel, and duct tape. Peterson also had several changes of clothes, four cell phones, two driver's licenses and six credit cards.
The Defense's Hurdles
Peterson did not testify during his trial. Geragos questioned the lead investigator in the case about Peterson's multiple affairs, suggesting that he would not have committed murder to continue his relationship with Frey.
Geragos tried to explain Peterson's behavior through the testimony of his parents. Jackie Peterson testified that she had mistakenly withdrawn $10,000 from her son's account and gave it back to him the day before his arrest. That, she said, explained the large amount of money he was carrying. She also said she told her son to buy the car in her name because police periodically impounded his vehicles to search for evidence.
Lee Peterson testified that he told Scott Peterson to get his brother's license the day before the arrest so he could get a San Diego resident's discount at a golf course.
Geragos also argued Peterson normally traveled with camping equipment and, by playing a tape of a phone conversation between Peterson and his brother, tried to show he was trying to evade the media, not police.
Still, Geragos did not explain why Peterson's alibi placed him near the area where the remains of Laci and the unborn child she had planned to name Conner were found. The defense also promised to show the fetus could have been born alive, and some critics said, failed.
Prosecutors believed Peterson killed Laci on either Dec. 23 or 24, 2002, and used concrete anchors to sink her body in the bay. They theorized that the fetus was expelled from Laci's body after her death, which would explain why the bodies washed ashore separately. But the prosecution's current and tidal expert could not give a precise trajectory path for the remains.
Peterson's defense contended Laci was kidnapped Dec. 24 and that her baby could have been born alive and subsequently killed, then dumped in the bay along with his mother. This, Geragos had argued, would prove that Peterson could not have killed his wife and child because he was under too much scrutiny by the media and police after reporting Laci missing.
However, a key defense witness fell short of proving Geragos' theory when he testified the fetus probably died on Dec. 29, 2002, at the earliest. He admitted he based his conclusions, in part, on anecdotal evidence of when Laci may have discovered her pregnancy.
The case generated national headlines and was the subject of a TV movie, "The Perfect Husband," starring Dean Cain as Peterson. Publicity was so great that the trial was moved from Modesto, where the Petersons lived, to Redwood, about 90 miles away.