County prosecutors announced Friday plans to retry the penalty phase of the murder case against Scott Lee Peterson, who was tried and convicted of the murder of his wife and unborn child in 2004 and sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Peterson has spent the last 15 years in jail at San Quentin. The announcement follows an Aug. 24 decision by the California Supreme Court that unanimously upheld Peterson’s conviction but reversed the penalty imposed by the trial jury on account of errors made in jury selection.
The high court set aside the death penalty because the trial judge excluded jurors from the jury pool when they said that they were personally opposed to the death penalty, without determining that the prospective jurors would not be able to set aside their personal views about capital punishment and follow the law as the trial judge instructed. The U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled that jurors may not be disqualified for that reason.
Quoting from a decision of that court, the California high court stated “‘a criminal defendant has the right to an impartial jury drawn from a venire that has not been tilted in favor of capital punishment by selective prosecutorial challenges for cause’ based solely on general opposition to the death penalty.” The court therefore reversed the judgment as to the sentence of death and remanded the matter for a new penalty determination.
At a virtual hearing in the Superior Court for Stanislaus County, prosecutors informed the court that they intended to seek the death penalty again.
According to an NBC News report, Peterson’s lawyer informed the court that he was just learning that the DA would seek death penalty a second time, and he would need time to discuss with his client and prepare.
The Peterson case has attracted worldwide attention. Prosecutors showed at trial that Peterson was having an affair while his wife, Laci, was pregnant with their first child. According to contemporaneous accounts, the couple had named the unborn child Conner.
The prosecutors presented evidence that Peterson had killed his wife shortly before Christmas 2002 and then took her body on his boat onto the San Francisco Bay and dumped her, weighted down with concrete blocks, in the deep waters of the Bay. In April 2003, Laci’s decomposed and partially dismembered corpse was discovered in the Bay. The fetus, Conner, was also discovered roughly a mile away.
DNA tests confirmed Laci’s identity.
The trial was originally planned for Stanislaus County where Peterson lived but the venue was changed to San Mateo County on account of extensive pre-trial publicity.
The jury convicted Peterson in November 2004. The penalty phase of the trial was held from Nov. 30 to Dec. 13, 2004 and the jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court imposed the sentence in March 2005.
The court has set another hearing on November 6th.