VERDICT: Scott Peterson guilty
By BRIAN SKOLOFF
Associated Press Writer
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – Scott Peterson was convicted today of murdering his pregnant wife and dumping her body in San Francisco Bay in what prosecutors in the made-for-cable-TV case portrayed as a cold-blooded attempt to escape marriage and fatherhood for the pleasures of the bachelor life.
Jurors found the former fertilizer salesman guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Laci Peterson, and guilty of second-degree murder in the death of the fetus she carried.
Peterson stared straight ahead as the verdict was read, then looked at each of the jurors as they were polled to confirm their decisions. The jurors appeared serious and unsmiling – none appeared to look back at Peterson.
Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, sobbed as the verdicts were read. Her son, Brent Rocha, wrapped his arm tightly around her. Laci’s friends in the gallery, arms around each other, cried. Sobs and loud sighs could be heard in the courtroom.
“You can go home now, this part of the trial is over. The penalty phase of this trial will start Nov. 22,” Judge Alfred A. Delucchi told the jurors.
After the jury was dismissed for the day, Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton reached forward and patted the shoulder of the lead detective, Craig Grogan, whose testimony about all the reasons why police suspected Peterson of murder proved pivotal.
Peterson, 32, now faces a possible death by lethal injection or life in prison. Delucchi said he hoped to have the result of the penalty phase by the end of November.
The verdict came after about eight hours of deliberation by the final 12 jurors, following a five-month trial that was an endless source of fascination to the tabloids and cable networks with its story of an attractive, radiant young couple awaiting the birth of their first child, a cheating husband, and a slaying for which prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, no weapon, not even a cause of death.
Jurors had resumed deliberations Friday at the end of a chaotic week in which the judge removed two members of the panel – one who apparently violated the judge’s order only to consider evidence presented at trial, and the other – the foreman – for reasons that remain unclear. The final 12 members deliberated for about 8 hours Wednesday and Friday before reaching their verdict.
A huge crowd massed outside the San Mateo County courthouse, where the trial was moved because of pretrial publicity in Modesto, where the couple had lived. Some cheered when the verdict was announced. “He’s a sicko. He needs to fry,” said Bob Johnston, 42, of San Jose. “I wanted to see that justice was served.”
The 27-year-old substitute teacher was eight months pregnant when she vanished around Christmas Eve 2002. Four months later, her remains and those of her fetus washed up about 90 miles from the couple’s Modesto home – not far from where Peterson claims he was fishing alone the day of her disappearance.
Peterson was then arrested in the San Diego area, more than 400 miles from home, carrying nearly $15,000, his hair and goatee bleached blond.
Police never were able to establish exactly when, how or where Laci died.
At trial, prosecutors presented 174 witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence, from wiretapped phone calls to videotaped police interrogations, depicting Peterson as liar and a philanderer who was sweet-talking his girlfriend, massage therapist Amber Frey, at the same time he was trying to show the world he was pining for his missing wife.
Prosecutor Rick Distaso told the jury the former fertilizer salesman could not stand the thought of being trapped in a “dull, boring, married life with kids,” and either strangled or smothered his wife and dumped her weighted-down body overboard from his fishing boat.
“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,” Distaso told jurors. “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.”
The jury heard how Peterson had bought a two-day ocean-fishing license days before Laci disappeared, yet claimed his fishing trip was a last-minute substitution for golf because of blustery weather. Prosecutors also offered evidence suggesting he poured concrete anchors and used them to sink his wife’s body in the bay.
Peterson never took the stand. His lawyers offered testimony that the fetus lived beyond the day Laci vanished, and they suggested that someone else abducted and killed Laci while she walked the dog, then framed her husband after learning of his fishing-trip alibi.
They explained his lies and inconsistent statements about his affair and his activities around the time of Laci’s disappearance as the mutterings of a man in the midst of a breakdown over his missing wife.
Defense attorney Mark Geragos acknowledged jurors probably hated Peterson, and pleaded with them not to convict the man simply because the prosecution had made him look like a “jerk and a liar.”
“You’re not supposed to just decide this case on whether or not you like Scott Peterson,” Geragos said.
The lawyer also noted the lingering questions about how Laci died.
“Maybe the logical explanation for the fact that we have no evidence of her struggling in that house, dying in that house is because it didn’t happen in that house,” he said. “I would love nothing more … than to solve this case … point to who did it … but the fact of the matter is that they have not proved this case, they have not proved that Scott Peterson did anything except lie.”
In addition, Geragos said police found that someone had used a computer in the Petersons’ home on the morning Laci vanished – after authorities contend Laci was already dead – to search Web sites for a scarf and a sunflower-motif umbrella stand. He suggested the user was Laci, who had a sunflower tattoo on her ankle.
The story proved irresistible to the cable networks, which almost every night brought in talking heads to pick apart the two sides’ legal strategies and expound on some of the soap opera aspects of the case, which included hours of secretly taped calls in which Peterson spun out elaborate tales to Frey.
Frey herself testified, saying that Peterson told her while they were dating that he had “lost his wife.” Two weeks later, Laci vanished. But Frey also said that in all their recorded conversations, Peterson repeatedly professed his love for his wife and never said anything to incriminate himself in her slaying.