SAN FRANCISCO -- A lawyer for Scott Peterson, convicted in 2004 of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, told the California Supreme Court Tuesday that he was denied a fair trial because of massive publicity and a slew of legal errors made at trial.
During a hearing on his appeal, Cliff Gardner, Peterson's lawyer, started his argument by noting that 12 prospective jurors were discharged after stating on written questionnaires that they opposed the death penalty but would be willing to impose it.
The prosecution has conceded that if the state high court finds that any one of those potential jurors was improperly excused, the court would have to overturn Peterson's 2005 death sentence. Since his sentence, Peterson has been incarcerated at San Quentin prison's death row.
Laci Peterson, 27, four weeks shy of giving birth, disappeared on Christmas Eve in 2002. Scott Peterson told police he had left their Modesto home at 9:30 a.m. that day and driven to a marina in Berkeley. He said he went fishing in his new boat, returned home late that afternoon and called his mother-in-law, telling her that his wife was missing.
Nearly four months later, Laci Peterson's remains and the body of her unborn son, with its umbilical cord still attached, washed up on a rocky shore on San Francisco Bay. A passerby walking a dog found them a few miles from where Scott Peterson said he gone fishing.
Gardner argued during Tuesday's hearing that the trial court also improperly allowed two jurors to climb into the 14-foot aluminum boat that police said Peterson used to dispose of his wife's body in San Francisco Bay. The two jurors rocked it as it sat in a trailer to test its stability.
The trial judge erred again, Gardner said, when he insisted the prosecution be present if the defense were to take the boat out into San Francisco Bay to determine whether it would have capsized if Peterson had thrown over his wife's anchored body overboard.
"The right to effective assistance of counsel includes the right to investigate your case in confidence," argued Gardner, who has successfully represented other death row inmates.
After the judge insisted on the prosecution's presence for the experiment, Peterson's defense dropped the request.
Peterson's trial was moved from Modesto, where he and Laci lived, to San Mateo County after a judge determined he could not get a fair trial in Modesto. After seeing the juror questionnaires in San Mateo County, Peterson's defense filed another motion to move the trial to a different county. That motion was denied.