Mug shot of Peterson taken in 2011.
|Born||Scott Lee Peterson
October 24, 1972
San Diego, California, U.S.
|Criminal status||Incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison|
|Spouse(s)||Laci Peterson (m. 1997–2002) (her death)|
|Parent(s)||Jacqueline Helen Latham (died 2013) and Lee Arthur Peterson|
|Conviction(s)||First degree murder in the death of Laci; second degree murder in the death of Conner|
Scott Lee Peterson (born October 24, 1972) is an American prisoner currently on death row in California convicted of murdering his wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn son in Modesto, California in 2002. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2004 and sentenced to death by lethal injection the following year. He remains on death row in San Quentin State Prison while his case is on appeal to the Supreme Court of California. He maintains his innocence.
Peterson was born in San Diego, California, to Jacqueline Helen Latham (1943–2013) and Lee Arthur Peterson (b. 1939). His father worked for a trucking company, and later owned a crate-packaging business. His mother owned a boutique in the community of La Jolla, called "The Put On". He attended the University of San Diego High School (now Cathedral Catholic High School) and studied briefly at Arizona State University and Cuesta College before transferring to California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, where he graduated with a B.A. in agricultural business in 1997. He worked in a cafe as a waiter while attending Cal Poly, when he met Laci Denise Rocha.
Disappearance of Laci Peterson
On December 24, 2002, Laci Peterson was reported missing from the Modesto, California home she shared with Scott. She was eight months pregnant with a due date of February 10, 2003, and they had planned to name the baby boy Conner. The exact date and cause of her death were never determined. Peterson initially reported her missing on Christmas Eve, and the story quickly attracted nationwide media interest.
Modesto police did not immediately identify Peterson as a suspect, largely because Laci's family and friends maintained their faith in his innocence during the month following her disappearance. Eventually, police grew more suspicious due to inconsistencies in his story. On January 17, it became known that he had numerous extramarital affairs, most recently with a massage therapist named Amber Frey. She approached police about Peterson, whom she had just begun to date, after discovering he was actually married to a missing woman. At this point, Laci's family announced that they had withdrawn their support of him. They later said that they were angered not by the affair, but that he had told Frey that he'd "lost" Laci and that he would be spending his first Christmas without her — 14 days before she disappeared. To the Rochas, this meant that he had already planned to kill her long before her disappearance.
Frey agreed to let the police tape her subsequent phone conversations with Peterson, in hopes of getting him to confess. Despite this, he was not recorded making any confession to her. During the trial, the audio recordings of his and Frey's telephone conversations were played, and the transcripts were publicized. The recordings revealed that in the days after Laci went missing, he claimed to Frey that he had traveled to Paris to celebrate the holidays, in part with his new companions Pasqual and François. In reality, he made one of these phone calls while attending the New Year's Eve candlelight vigil in Modesto for Laci.
Recovery of body
On April 13, 2003, the remains of a fetus were found on the shoreline of San Francisco Bay in Richmond's Point Isabel Regional Shoreline, north of the Berkeley Marina, where Peterson had been boating the day of Laci's disappearance. The next day, April 14, 2003, a partial female torso missing its hands, feet, and head was found in the same area. It was identified as Laci's, the fetus was her unborn child. Autopsies were performed, but due to decomposition the exact cause of death could not be determined. The medical examiner did note that she had suffered some broken ribs (the 5th, 6th, and 9th ribs) prior to her death; these injuries were not caused by her body's dragging along the rocks in the bay. Prosecutors suggested that she could have been suffocated or strangled in their home. The FBI and Modesto Police Department performed forensic searches of their home, his truck, the tool box in the back of the latter, his warehouse, and his boat.
After Peterson was arrested, police conducted further searches in the bay to locate anchors they believe weighed down Laci's body while it was under water; however, nothing was found.
Peterson was arrested by San Diego police on April 18, 2003, in La Jolla, California, in the parking lot of the Torrey Pines Golf Course, where he said he was meeting his father and brother for a game of golf. At the time of his arrest, he was in possession of the following non-golf specific items:
- approximately $15,000 in cash
- four cell phones
- multiple credit cards belonging to various members of his family
- an array of camping equipment, including knives, implements for warming food, tents and tarpaulins and a water purifier
- nine pairs of footwear (shoes, boots, flip flops)
- several changes of clothing
- a T-handled double-edged dagger
- a MapQuest map to Frey's workplace (printed the previous day)
- a shovel
- 2 ropes
- 200 blister packs of sleeping pills
- his brother's driver's license
His hair and goatee had been bleached blonde. Although he claimed the lighter hair color was the result of chlorine from swimming in a friend's pool, its owner later testified that, to his knowledge, he had never swum in it or made use of his hot tub.
Peterson had been represented before his arraignment by Kirk McAllister, a veteran criminal defense attorney from Modesto, California. He told Judge Nancy Ashley at arraignment that he could not afford a private attorney.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Kent Faulkner was also assigned to the case. Peterson later indicated that he could afford a private attorney Mark Geragos, who had done other high-profile criminal defense work. A judge changed the venue of the trial from Modesto to Redwood City, California on January 20, 2004, due to increasing hostility toward Peterson in the Modesto area.
The trial, the People of the State of California v. Scott Peterson, began in June 2004 and was followed closely by the media. The lead prosecutor was Rick Distaso. Geragos led Peterson's defense. Prosecution witness Frey engaged her own attorney, Gloria Allred, to represent her. Allred was not bound by the gag order imposed on those involved in the trial. Although she maintained that her client had no opinion about whether Peterson was guilty, Allred was openly sympathetic to the prosecution. She appeared frequently on television news programs during the trial.
Peterson's defense lawyers based their case on the lack of direct evidence and played down the significance of circumstantial evidence. They suggested that the fetal remains were of a full-term infant and theorized that someone kidnapped Laci, held her until she gave birth, and then dumped both bodies in the bay. The prosecution's medical experts contended that the baby was not full term and died at the same time as his mother. Geragos suggested that a Satanic cult kidnapped the pregnant woman. He claimed Peterson was "a cad" for cheating on Laci but not a murderer.
One juror was removed early in the trial due to misconduct and was replaced. Jury foreman and attorney Gregory Jackson later requested his own removal during jury deliberations, most likely because his fellow jurors wanted to replace him as foreman. Geragos told reporters that Jackson had mentioned threats he received when he requested to be removed from the jury. Jackson was also replaced by an alternate. On November 12 the reconstituted jury convicted Peterson of first-degree murder with special circumstances for killing Laci and second-degree murder for killing the fetus she carried. The penalty phase of the trial began on November 30 and concluded December 13 when, at 1:50 p.m. PST, the twelve-person jury returned a verdict of death.
Members of the jury stated in later press appearances that they felt that Peterson's demeanor – specifically, his lack of emotion and the phone calls to Frey in the days following Laci's disappearance – indicated he was guilty. They based their verdict on "hundreds of small 'puzzle pieces' of circumstantial evidence that came out during the trial, from the location of Laci's body to the myriad lies her husband told after her disappearance." They also decided on the death penalty because they felt he betrayed his responsibility to protect his wife and son.
The only piece of forensic evidence identified was a single hair, thought to have been Laci's, found in a pair of pliers from Peterson's boat.
Peterson changed his appearance and purchased a vehicle using his mother's name in order to avoid recognition by the press. He added two pornographic television channels to his cable service only days after his wife's disappearance; the prosecution suggested that this meant he knew she would not be returning home. He expressed interest in selling the house he had shared with her, and he sold her Land Rover.
Testimony for the prosecution included Rick Cheng, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey, and an expert witness on tides, particularly of the San Francisco Bay. Cheng admitted during his cross-examination that his findings were "probable, not precise"; tidal systems are sufficiently chaotic, and he was unable to develop an exact model of the bodies' disposal and travel. The prosecution explored an affair by the defendant with Frey, and the contents of their taped telephone calls.
The defense suggested a prostitute accused of stealing checks from Peterson's mailbox may have murdered Laci, but Modesto police Detective Mike Hermosa did not indicate that the prostitute was ever a suspect in her disappearance. Prosecutor Dave Harris noted that the checks were stolen after she vanished, meaning the woman was not involved in her disappearance.
Geragos seemed quite confident that Dr. Charles March could single-handedly exonerate Peterson by showing that the fetus Laci carried died a week after prosecutors claimed. Under cross-examination, March admitted basing his findings on an anecdote from one of her friends that she had taken a home pregnancy test on June 9, 2002. "Prosecutors pointed out that no medical records relied on the June 9 date and March became flustered and confused on the stand – and even asked a prosecutor to cut him 'some slack' – undermining his credibility." Summing up this key defense witness, Stan Goldman, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles said, "There were moments today that reminded me of Chernobyl." According to one newspaper account about Dr. March's testimony, "But by the end of his testimony Thursday, legal analysts and jurors closed their notebooks, rolled their eyes, and snickered when they thought no one was looking."
The prosecution presented Peterson's affair with Frey and money as motives for the murder. Prosecutors surmised that he killed Laci due to increasing debt and a desire to be single again.
On March 16, 2005, Judge Alfred A. Delucchi formally sentenced Peterson to death by lethal injection, calling the murder of Laci "cruel, uncaring, heartless, and callous", and ordered him to pay $10,000 toward the cost of Laci's funeral.
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 17, 2005, Peterson arrived at San Quentin State Prison. He was reported not to have slept the night before, being too "jazzed" to sleep. He joined other inmates in California's sole death row facility while his case is on automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of California in San Francisco. Peterson's attorney, Cliff Gardner states that the publicity surrounding the trial, incorrect evidentiary rulings, and other mistakes deprived Peterson of a fair trial.
On July 6, 2012, Peterson's lawyer, Cliff Gardner, filed a 423-page appeal of his sentence, citing a jury affected by hostile publicity, a flimsy case and the use of unreliable dog-sniffing evidence. The State Attorney General's office filed their response brief on January 26, 2015.
In 2005, he was portrayed by Nathan Anderson in another TV movie, Amber Frey: Witness for the Prosecution.
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