by BOB EGELKO
Jun 02, 2020
(SF Chronicle) - A lawyer for Scott Peterson, sentenced to death for the 2002 murders of his pregnant wife and their unborn child in a case that drew nationwide attention, told the California Supreme Court on Tuesday that Peterson could not have gotten a fair trial from a jury that was awash in hostile publicity.
After the trial was transferred from Stanislaus County, where the couple lived, to San Mateo County because of local outrage at the killings, a pretrial survey in the new venue showed that nearly all prospective jurors knew about the case and nearly half were convinced Peterson was guilty, attorney Cliff Gardner told the court.
“If this isn’t an extreme case, what is?” Gardner asked, arguing for a new trial on Peterson’s guilt and sentence. Although the 12 seated jurors were questioned by opposing lawyers, a process known as voir dire, and promised to be fair, he said, “when the community has been saturated by prejudicial publicity, we cannot rely on voir dire to obtain a fair jury.”
Although the case was well known throughout the state, he argued, the trial should have been transferred to Los Angeles County, where surveys showed much less of the public had made up its mind about Peterson’s guilt.
Under that standard, asked Justice Carol Corrigan, “don’t we begin to move in the direction that the court must select the venue?” Not in most cases, Gardner replied, but this was an extreme case, in which thousands of local residents outside the courthouse cheered enthusiastically when Peterson was convicted, and again when he was sentenced to death.
The prosecution’s lawyer, Deputy Attorney General Donna Provenzano, countered that Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi had taken all legally required steps to screen prospective jurors and order them to base their verdict on the evidence.
As Delucchi observed at the time, “the only place where this case could have gone where no one would have heard about it was Mars,” Provenzano said. “Yes, there was a lot of publicity, but it stopped at the courtroom doors, at the courthouse doors.”
The justices gave virtually no hint of their views during the one-hour hearing, conducted by teleconference, asking few questions of Gardner and none of Provenzano. A ruling is due within 90 days.
Peterson, now 47, was convicted in 2004 of murdering his wife, Laci Peterson, 27, who was eight months pregnant, and their unborn son, Connor, in their Modesto home. Their remains washed ashore four months later in Richmond, near an area where Peterson said he had gone fishing. A prosecution witness, Amber Frey, testified she had been having an affair with Peterson.
There was no physical evidence of Peterson’s guilt, however, and his lawyers have offered evidence in a separate proceeding before the court that they say would establish his innocence.
Another issue at Tuesday’s hearing was Delucchi’s dismissal of 13 prospective jurors who had declared their opposition to the death penalty. Gardner said the judge had failed to ask them, as the law requires, whether they could put their views aside and vote for a death sentence based on the evidence.
There was a “systematic exclusion of people who were opposed to the death penalty but would consider death” as a verdict, the defense lawyer said. “That results in an imbalanced jury.”
Provenzano said Delucchi had valid reasons for dismissing each of the prospective jurors, and cited comments by Peterson’s trial lawyer referring to the judge’s “Herculean efforts” to seat an impartial jury. But she acknowledged that under legal standards, the court must overturn Peterson’s death sentence if it finds that any jurors were improperly dismissed because of their views on capital punishment.
California conducted its last execution in 2006 and will not hold another during the term of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has declared a moratorium on executions. The state has 727 inmates on Death Row.
The case is People vs. Peterson, S132449.
[ed. - click to view the appeal (5.8mb .pdf)]