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The California Supreme Court on Monday unanimously overturned the death penalty for Scott Peterson, who was convicted of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn son in 2002.
In a decision written by Justice Leondra Kruger, the state's highest court said the death sentence must be removed because the trial judge wrongly discharged prospective jurors who expressed opposition to capital punishment but said they would be willing to impose it.
The court left in place the guilty verdict and said prosecutors could retry Peterson on the penalty if they wished.
"Before the trial began, the trial court made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase," Kruger wrote.
The court said the rules for dismissing potential jurors based on concerns about the death penalty were well established by Peterson's trial.
"Jurors may not be excused merely for opposition to the death penalty, but only for views rendering them unable to fairly consider imposing that penalty in accordance with their oath," Kruger wrote.
Instead of just dismissing the prospective jurors, the judge should have permitted them to be questioned so their views could have better been explored, the court said.
"As the present case demonstrates, an inadequate or incomplete examination of potential jurors can have disastrous consequences as to the validity of a judgment," Kruger wrote.
In addition to challenging the removal of prospective jurors, Peterson had argued that massive pretrial publicity deprived him of a fair trial.
Peterson's trial was moved to San Mateo County after a judge found he could not get a fair trial in Modesto. Peterson's appellate lawyer argued the trial should have been moved again after questionnaires of more than 1,000 potential jurors in San Mateo County showed many already were convinced Peterson was guilty.
But the court said the publicity was so widespread that moving the trial to yet another county would not have mattered.
"Precisely because this case was the subject of such widespread media attention, it is unclear what purpose a second change of venue would have served," the court said. "The publicity the Peterson trial generated, like the trials of O.J. Simpson, the Manson family, and any number of other so-called trials of the century before them, was intrinsic to the case, not the place."
Prosecutors in Stanislaus County must decide whether to try once again to seek the death penalty or agree to commute the sentence to life without possibility of parole.
John Goold, a spokesman for the Stanislaus County district attorney's office, said prosecutors were still examining the ruling Monday and had not yet decided how to proceed.
"We are going to have to review the decision and get together with the victim's family before any decision is going to be made," Goold said.
Cliff Gardner, Peterson's appellate lawyer, appeared doubtful Monday that prosecutors would seek a new trial on the penalty. He said the California Supreme Court was now reviewing a separate habeas corpus challenge filed on behalf of Peterson that contained "new forensic and eyewitness evidence of innocence."
"In deciding whether to seek a new death sentence, the question for prosecutors now is whether they can prove Mr. Peterson culpable for this crime to even a single juror seated through a fair jury selection process," Gardner said.
Peterson is confined at San Quentin prison, where scores of inmates have been infected by the coronavirus and several have died. Asked if Peterson had contracted the virus, Gardner said only: "He is doing fine now."
The California attorney general's office, which argued the case for prosecutors, declined to comment.
Laci Peterson, 27, was due to give birth in four weeks when she disappeared on Christmas Eve. Scott Peterson told police he had left their Modesto home that morning to go fishing in Berkeley.
Nearly four months later, Laci’s remains and the body of her unborn son, with the 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 had gone fishing.
Laci's disappearance sparked a massive search. At first her family did not suspect Scott. That changed after a massage therapist named Amber Frey told police that she and Peterson had been dating, and that he had told her his wife had died. She then secretly recorded calls with him for the police.
Police arrested Peterson in San Diego County. He had bleached his hair and goatee and was carrying $15,000 in cash.
Prosecutors told jurors that Scott either strangled or suffocated his wife on the night of Dec. 23, 2002, or the following morning. He wrapped her body in a blue tarp, put her in the back of his boat, affixed anchors to her and dropped her in the bay, they said.
Mark Geragos, who defended Peterson at trial, argued Laci had been kidnapped by strangers who dumped her in the bay to frame her husband.