Scott Peterson’s quest for a new trial was dealt a significant blow in December when a judge rejected his claim that a biased juror served on his 2004 murder trial. His case is far from over, though.
Peterson last month filed a new petition for habeas corpus in California’s First District Court of Appeal. It has six claims, including that new witnesses have come forward with information supporting the defense’s theory that Laci was abducted and killed by men she saw burglarizing a neighbor’s home.
After walking her dog on Christmas Eve 2002, she “confronted the burglars by threatening to call the police,” The petition reads. “They then killed her and, after learning Scott, the primary suspect, had been fishing in the San Francisco Bay, dumped her body there.”
In early January 2003, Modesto police issued a press release saying they had arrested Steven Wayne Todd and Donald Glen Pearce for the burglary across from the Peterson home on Covina Avenue in Modesto. Police said the burglary occurred two days after Laci Peterson went missing and they had no reason to believe the men were connected to her disappearance.
That was the information the jury heard in Scott Peterson’s 2004 trial.
Peterson’s trial attorney Mark Geragos told the jury in opening statements he would prove that Peterson was “stone cold innocent” based on evidence that Laci was alive when Scott drove to the San Francisco Bay.
But the jury never heard from any of the 12 people who reported to police that they saw Laci Peterson walking her dog that morning, after Scott left to go fishing, or evidence that she had witnessed the burglary.
Peterson was convicted of the first-degree murder of Laci and the second-degree murder of their unborn son, Conner, and sentenced to death.
Peterson sat on death row for 15 years waiting for a team of lawyers to draft and file his appeal and first habeas petition and for the California Supreme Court to rule on them.
In 2020, the court overturned Peterson’s death sentence on the grounds that the trial judge wrongly dismissed jurors who were opposed to the death penalty but might still have been able to apply it fairly. It then remanded the case to San Mateo Superior Court, where the 2004 trial took place, for a judge to determine whether a juror lied to get on his jury because she was prejudiced against him.
Following a five-day evidentiary hearing and an extensive briefing by Peterson’s team and the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, Judge Anne-Christine Massullo denied Peterson’s claim on Dec. 20. She determined that while the juror gave false answers on a jury questionnaire, they were not motivated by preexisting or improper bias.
Peterson could not appeal Massullo’s decision but he could file another habeas petition with the First District Court of Appeal so long as it contained new information.
This time, he did it without the team of court-appointed attorneys he had when he still faced the death sentence.
As a defendant in a capital case, Peterson was entitled to those attorneys. Now that he has been resentenced to life without the possibility of parole, that is no longer the case.
Peterson is representing himself but has the help of his sister-in-law Janey Peterson, who has maintained Scott’s innocence and has been intimately involved in his legal proceedings. She even attended law school but is not a licensed attorney.
Janey Peterson also maintains a website and social media pages that detail Scott’s appeal process.
“They had to shut her up”
On Aug. 22, 2022, a little over a week after the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing in Scott Peterson’s juror misconduct claim, a person identifying herself as Melissa messaged Janey Peterson on Twitter. Melissa told Janey Peterson she knew of a man who, during a gathering a few months earlier, made confessions about the burglary and Laci’s abduction and murder.
Janey Peterson contacted one of Scott’s attorneys at the time, Pat Harris, who with private investigator Jason DeWitt interviewed three people who said they were present when the man made the incriminating statements.
One told DeWitt she heard the man make statements about Laci’s murder but didn’t want to be involved in the case. The other two gave details about what the man said and signed declarations.
DeWitt could not find the man who allegedly made the statements. He is identified in the petition only by his initials, D.M.
The three witnesses also are identified in the petition only by their initials. Their full names are redacted from the declarations, which were submitted with the petition as exhibits. Non-redacted versions of the exhibits were filed with the court under seal. When asked by The Bee, Janey Peterson did not say why the petition was filed this way.
According to the declarations of the two witnesses, D.M. admitted that he and two others burglarized a house across the street from the Peterson home and were dragging a safe out of the home when Laci saw and confronted them.
“D.M. said Laci ‘caught them and threatened to call the police,’” according to the petition. “D.M. said they could not afford to get caught. They had to shut her up. D.M. said the men he was with killed Laci.”
Scott Peterson’s fishing alibi was released by Modesto police the day after Laci went missing and, according to the petition, D.M. said they heard about it on the news, then “took Laci’s body to where Scott was fishing, and they dumped it.”
“This new evidence is of such decisive force and value that it would be more likely than not to change the outcome at trial,” the petition reads.
Other claims against DA’s Office
Additional claims made by Peterson are that the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office presented false evidence at trial about the date the burglary occurred and withheld exculpatory evidence regarding a tip that would link Laci’s death to the burglary and support Peterson’s defense of third party culpability.
The prosecution said the burglary occurred Dec. 26, but burglar Steven Todd’s plea agreement said it happened “on our about and between” Dec. 24, 2002, when the residents left town and Dec. 26, 2002, when they returned to find their home burglarized.
“The only evidence the Modesto police had that the burglary occurred on Dec. 26, 2002, was that Todd and Peace said so,” the petition reads. “By the time they were arrested on January 2, 2003, the police should have known that the last thing any suspect in the burglary is going to do is put themselves on Covena Avenue on Christmas Eve, the day Laci went missing.”
The petition claims that investigators never corroborated the alibis the burglars gave for their whereabouts on Dec. 24 or followed up on information about a third suspect. One witness told police she saw three men and a white van in front of the home on Dec. 24, according to the petition.
The jury also did not hear about a hot-line tip to Modesto police from a California Department of Corrections lieutenant. The lieutenant said he heard a recorded conversation between an inmate and his brother about Steven Todd admitting that Laci had witnessed the burglary.
The jury never heard anything about the lieutenant’s tip, or from people who reported seeing Laci walking her dog after Scott left for the San Francisco Bay, or from the mailman who said the dog did not bark at him like usual when he delivered mail at Peterson home, also after Scott left.
It was some of the basis for a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in Peterson’s original habeas petition, which was one of the 10 claims denied by the California Supreme Court.
This latest petition now uses that information in its claim the DA presented false evidence.
In the claim the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence, the petition says it never provided Peterson or his defense team any reports detailing what, if anything, investigators did to follow up on the lieutenant’s tip. In a 2005 declaration, the lieutenant said a Modesto police detective did a telephone interview with the incarcerated brother but the defense never received that information in discovery, according to the petition.
Another claim in the petition reasserts the juror misconduct claim that Judge Massullo ruled on in December and challenges her decision by relying on additional evidence and argument developed during the evidentiary hearing. There also is a second claim of false evidence, this regarding testimony about Conner’s fetal age at the time of his death.
“Fetal development is a continually evolving science,” the petition reads. “Improvements in imaging and continuing study have changed the landscape of the science since (Peterson’s) conviction ... there was a dispute in the field during (Peterson’s) trial, and that dispute has grown since.”
Peterson asked the Court of Appeals to “appoint counsel to pursue this valid claim, and funding to obtain expert opinion related to the changes in science.”
The court has not yet done that but on April 27 gave notice to the state that it has 30 days to respond to Peterson’s latest petition.