LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California judge on Tuesday rejected a new murder trial for Scott Peterson, nearly 20 years after he was charged with dumping the bodies of his pregnant wife, Laci, and the unborn child they planned to name Conner into San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002.
Peterson, 50, alleged the resulting trial that gripped the world was tainted by a rogue juror who lied about her own history of abuse to get on the panel that initially sent him to death row.
Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo found that Juror No. 7, Richelle Nice, committed misconduct by providing false answers during jury selection — but that she did not commit enough misconduct to require a new trial because she wasn't biased against Peterson.
Nice did not intentionally conceal information about her life or misrepresent her financial situation to stay on the jury, and did not appear vengeful toward Peterson in letters she later wrote him in prison, Massullo ruled in San Mateo County Superior Court.
“The Court concludes that Juror No. 7’s responses were not motivated by pre-existing or improper bias against (Peterson), but instead were the result of a combination of good faith misunderstanding of the questions and sloppiness in answering,” the judge wrote.
Defense attorney Pat Harris said he was disappointed in the decision, which he said excused Nice’s misconduct.
“We believe this sets a bad precedent for future cases where jurors purposefully commit misconduct but nevertheless know it will be excused by simply shrugging it off with ‘I forgot,’ ” Harris wrote. “Jury questionnaires and the attorneys who read them depend on the honesty of the answers in order to get a fair trial. It will make it difficult if jurors believe they can lie and there will be no repercussions.”
Peterson’s defense team plans to “push forward until he is freed,” Harris said.
It was undisputed that Nice failed to disclose as she was being selected for Peterson’s jury in 2004 that she had sought a restraining order while she was pregnant four years earlier. Nice said then that she “really fears for her unborn child” because of threats from her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend.
The California Supreme Court in 2020 found that Nice’s actions required a hearing to determine if they denied Peterson a fair trial, and assigned Judge Massullo to the case. The high court separately threw out Peterson’s death sentence in 2020 and Stanislaus County prosecutors decided against again seeking his execution even as they argued he received a fair trial. He was resentenced to life in prison in December.
Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson’s mother, said Tuesday that the judge’s decision confirms that Scott Peterson did receive a fair trial.
“We appreciate Juror No. 7 for her courage and honesty during this process. No juror should have to go through what she endured,” Rocha said in a statement provided by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office.
Scott Peterson argued that Nice fought to join the jury despite her financial hardship and that she entered deliberations determined to enact revenge for Peterson’s nearly full-term unborn child, the young victim she nicknamed “Little Man.”
But Nice testified that she had no bias against Peterson until she heard the evidence against him.
Nice said in a sworn declaration in 2020 that it did not occur to her to include the threat to her own unborn child on her juror form because she did not “feel ‘victimized’ the way the law might define that term.” She later testified that she answered truthfully based on her understanding of the questions.
“I didn’t write it on the questionnaire because it never crossed my mind, ever. It wasn’t done intentionally,” she swore during two days of testimony in February.
She also disputed any financial motive to serving on the jury, swearing that she and other jurors never discussed jointly writing their book, “We, the Jury,” until after the trial and verdict.
And it was Peterson’s celebrity attorney, Mark Geragos, who wanted her on the jury, prosecutors said. Geragos called Nice back as she prepared to leave after the trial judge dismissed her for financial hardship, though Geragos said he never would have done so had she properly disclosed her personal history.
Nice also denied being biased even though she said her boyfriend at the time was serially unfaithful and denied that he ever assaulted her despite his arrest for domestic violence.
Peterson was arrested in April 2003 only after his mistress came forward to say he told her his 27-year-old wife was gone a month before her actual disappearance.
His attorneys provided Massullo with what they called a “Credibility Chart” purporting to show Nice’s conflicting statements.
“Ms. Nice simply forgot,” prosecutors responded in court filings, arguing that any mistakes she made did not demonstrate bias.
“Her testimony and her demeanor ... clearly showed she was not a vengeful, scorned woman who sought to punish (Peterson),” they argued.
Among other issues Massullo had to decide was which side had the burden of proof.
Prosecutors said Peterson’s attorneys failed to prove Nice committed juror misconduct. Inadvertent or unintentional mistakes don’t count, they argued.
Peterson’s attorneys said Nice clearly concealed facts during jury selection, even unknowingly, which they said shifts the burden to prosecutors to prove that she wasn’t prejudiced.
Associated Press writers Brian Melley and Don Thompson contributed.