REDWOOD CITY, Calif. A jury decided Monday that Scott Peterson should be put to death for murdering his eight-months pregnant wife Laci, whose Christmas Eve disappearance two years ago formed the basis for a legal drama that has captivated the nation ever since.
The jury returned its verdict on the third day of deliberations and after seven days of tearful testimony in the penalty phase of the trial. The jury had two options in deciding the 32-year-old fertilizer salesman’s fate: life in prison without parole or death by injection.
Peterson clenched his jaw when the verdict was read but showed no other emotion. A cheer was heard from the crowd gathered outside San Mateo County Superior Court.
In arguing for death, prosecutors called Peterson “the worst kind of monster” and said he was undeserving of sympathy. The defense begged jurors to “go back there and please spare his life.”
Judge Alfred A. Delucchi will formally sentence Peterson on Feb. 25. He can recommend a lesser sentence of life in prison without parole, but it’s rare for judges to reduce a jury’s verdict in a capital case.
The decision came almost two years to the date after the disappearance of Laci Peterson, a 27-year-old substitute teacher who married her college sweetheart and was soon to be the proud mother of a baby boy named Conner. The story set off a tabloid frenzy as suspicion began to swirl around Scott Peterson, who claimed to have been fishing by himself on Christmas Eve and was carrying on an affair with a massage therapist at the time.
The remains of Laci and the fetus washed ashore about four months later, just a few miles from where Peterson claims to have gone fishing in San Francisco Bay. The case went to trial in June, and Peterson was convicted Nov. 12 of two counts of murder.
All the while, the case never stopped making headlines.
The case graced more People magazine covers than any murder investigation in the publication’s history. Court TV thrived during the case, providing countless hours of coverage on the investigation and gavel-to-gavel commentary throughout the trial. CNN’s Larry King hosted show after show with pundits picking apart legal strategies, testimony and even Scott Peterson’s demeanor.
Trial regulars showed up by the hundreds to participate in the daily lottery for the coveted 27 public seats inside the courtroom.
Peterson will now be sent to death row at San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco, the infamous lockup where prisoners gaze out small cell windows overlooking the same bay where Laci Peterson’s body was discarded.
Peterson still might not be executed for decades, if ever. That is because California’s death row has grown to house more than 640 condemned men and women since the state brought back capital punishment in 1978. Since then, only 10 executions have been carried out. It can take years for even the first phase of the appeals process to begin.
California’s last execution was on Jan. 29, 2002, when Stephen Wayne Anderson described by supporters as the poet laureate of Death Row was put to death by lethal injection for the Memorial Day 1980 murder of 81-year-old Elizabeth Lyman during a break-in at her home.
As many as three murderers face possible execution in 2005, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Margot Bach.
Prosecutors spent months portraying Peterson as a monster, a cheating husband and cold-blooded killer who wooed his lover even as police searched for his missing wife. They said he wanted to murder Laci to escape marriage and fatherhood for the pleasures of the freewheeling bachelor life.
The prosecution put on a short, but emotional case in the penalty phase of the trial, calling just four witnesses.
“Every morning when I get up I cry,” Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha, said during the penalty phase. “It takes me a long time just to be able to get out of the house … I miss her. I want to know my grandson. I want Laci to be a mother. I want to hear her called mom.”
Rocha would later rise halfway out of her seat and scream at Scott Peterson, who was seated impassively at the defense table: “Divorce was always an option,” she said. “Not murder!”
Defense attorneys argued during the trial’s guilt phase that Peterson was framed and that the real killers dumped Laci’s body in the water after learning of Peterson’s widely publicized alibi. The defense fought hard to save Peterson’s life, calling about 40 witnesses over seven days in the penalty phase.
They seized on anything from Scott Peterson’s past in attempt to spare his life, including testimony that he never cheated on the golf course or lost his temper.
They told jurors of the Scott Peterson who was a smiling, snuggling toddler. He was the high school golf captain who tutored younger students. He sang to seniors on Sundays and once broke up a dog fight. He cared for mentally retarded children. He was the highly motivated son who worked his way through college.
And finally, he was the young professional who married the woman he fell in love with in college.
“I wish there was a phrase that I could give you that could turn this around and make you believe there is good, there is real, real good in this person,” defense attorney Pat Harris said during closing arguments. “But I don’t have that phrase … that’s up to you to decide.”