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How Scott Peterson's murder convictions were suddenly thrown into doubt

By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SAN FRANCISCO - Laci Peterson's 2002 disappearance from her Modesto, Calif., home on Christmas Eve made instant headlines. Her family initially said that Scott, her husband, was beyond suspicion. Then a woman surfaced who said she was having an affair with him. Finally, Laci's remains and her 8-month-old fetus washed up on a rocky shore near where Scott said he had gone fishing on Christmas Eve.

Eighteen years later, Peterson's death sentence for killing his pregnant wife and unborn son has been overturned, and his convictions are under scrutiny. Alleged juror misconduct has sent the case back to San Mateo County Superior Court, where the fertilizer salesman was found guilty and sentenced to death after a 2004 trial.

"It's basically a second chance for Peterson," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now leads a project at the school to try to free the wrongly convicted.

The unraveling of such a high-profile murder case stems from legal errors made by the trial judge and a woman who allegedly lied to get picked for the jury and became obsessed with the death of the fetus, whom Laci and Scott were going to name Conner.

The California Supreme Court on Wednesday issued an order requiring a San Mateo County judge to examine whether the juror committed misconduct, and if so, whether the guilty verdicts should be overturned. A full-blown hearing with witnesses is possible. If the evidence clearly shows misconduct, prosecutors will have to show the juror's actions were irrelevant to the case to prevail.

Whatever the judge decides can be appealed, and the process could take months if not years. If the defense succeeds in overturning the convictions, Peterson most likely would be retried.

 

The order issued by the state's highest court is called "an order to show cause." It asks the trial court to determine whether Peterson should be granted a new trial on the grounds that "Juror No. 7 committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings, including but not limited to being the victim of a crime."

The California Supreme Court rarely issues such orders and usually limits them to sentences, not verdicts, said Scott Kauffman, a criminal defense appellate lawyer. In any case, Kauffman said, the prosecution ultimately prevails most of the time.

"When you are in habeas you are already dead and buried," Kauffman said. "If you get an order to show cause, you're closer to the surface but you are not there. You have to prove your claims in a hostile environment against a usually hostile judge."

But the defense can prevail. Cliff Gardner, Peterson's defense lawyer, said he has had two capital cases in which such orders led to the overturning of sentences.

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