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Jury opts for death penalty in Peterson murder case

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- Repelled by Scott Peterson's seeming lack of sorrow and remorse, a jury decided Monday that he deserves the death penalty for murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, almost two years ago to the date.

A cheer went up outside the courthouse as the jury announced its decision after 11 1/2 hours of deliberations over three days. Inside court, Peterson reacted with the same tight-jawed look that some jurors said turned them off after seeing little emotion out of Peterson since his wife's disappearance two years ago.

"I still would have liked to see, I don't know if remorse is the right word," juror Steve Cardosi said at a news conference following the sentence. "He lost his wife and his child -- it didn't seem to faze him. While that was going on ... he is romancing a girlfriend."

A crowd of several hundred gathered outside the courthouse for the verdict .

Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, cried quietly -- her lips quivering after the verdict was read. Scott Peterson's mother, Jackie, showed no apparent emotion.

The jury had two options in deciding the 32-year-old former fertilizer salesman's fate: life in prison without parole or death by injection.

Judge Alfred A. Delucchi will formally sentence Peterson on Feb. 25. The judge will have the option of reducing the sentence to life, but such a move is highly unlikely.

If the judge upholds the sentence, Peterson will be sent to death row at San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco.

But Peterson still might not be executed for decades -- if ever -- and it can take years for even the first phase of the appeals process to begin. Since California brought back capital punishment in 1978, only 10 executions have been carried out; the last execution, in 2002, was for a murder committed in 1980. The state's death row houses about 650 people.

The sentence marked one of the final chapters in a soap opera-like saga that began nearly two years ago with the Christmas Eve disappearance of Laci Peterson, a 27-year-old substitute teacher who married her college sweetheart and was soon to be the proud mother of a baby boy named Conner.

The tale of adultery and murder quickly set off a tabloid frenzy as suspicion began to swirl around Scott Peterson, who claimed to have been fishing by himself on Christmas Eve and was carrying on an affair with a massage therapist at the time.

The remains of Laci and the fetus washed ashore about four months later, just a few miles from where Peterson said he was fishing in the San Francisco Bay.

The case went to trial in June, and the jury of six men and six women convicted Peterson Nov. 12 of two counts of murder.

"There are so many things, so many things," juror Richelle Nice said in describing how the jury came about its decisions. "Scott Peterson was Laci's husband, Conner's daddy -- the one person that should have protected them."

Jurors said they were swayed as much by Peterson's emotions as by any of the testimony during the trial.

"For me, a big part of it was at the end -- the verdict -- no emotion. No anything. That spoke a thousand words -- loud and clear," Nice said, responding to a reporter's question about whether they wanted to hear a statement from Peterson. "I heard enough from him."

Juror Greg Beratlis said the jury was convinced of Peterson's guilt by "many, many things."

"Those bodies were found in the one place he went prior to her being missing," he said. "I played in my mind over and over conspiracies: Was somebody trying to set up Scott? Was somebody after Laci? It didn't add up."

The jury's decision followed seven days of tearful testimony in the penalty phase of the trial. In arguing for death last week, prosecutors called Peterson "the worst kind of monster" and said he was undeserving of sympathy. Defense attorney Mark Geragos begged of jurors: "Just don't kill him. That's all I am asking of you. End this cycle."

Prosecutors spent months portraying Peterson as a cheating husband and cold-blooded killer who wooed his lover even as police searched for his missing wife. They said he wanted to murder Laci to escape marriage and fatherhood for the pleasures of the freewheeling bachelor life.

The prosecution put on a short, but emotional case in the penalty phase, calling just four witnesses.

"Every morning when I get up I cry," Rocha told jurors. "It takes me a long time just to be able to get out of the house ... I miss her. I want to know my grandson. I want Laci to be a mother. I want to hear her called mom."

Rocha would later rise halfway out of her seat and scream at Scott Peterson, who was seated impassively at the defense table: "Divorce was always an option," she said. "Not murder!"

Defense attorneys argued during the trial's guilt phase that Peterson was framed and that the real killers dumped Laci's body in the water after learning of Peterson's widely publicized alibi. The defense fought hard to save Peterson's life, calling about 40 witnesses over seven days in the penalty phase.

In a brief news conference after the verdict, Geragos said he was "very disappointed." "Obviously, we plan on pursuing every and all appeals, motions for a new trial and everything else," he said.

Defense attorneys seized on anything from Scott Peterson's past in attempt to spare his life, including testimony that he never cheated or lost his temper on the golf course.

They told jurors of the Scott Peterson who was a smiling, snuggling toddler. He was the high school golf captain who tutored younger students. He sang to seniors on Sundays and once broke up a dog fight. He cared for mentally retarded children. He was the highly motivated son who worked his way through college.

And finally, he was the young professional who married the woman he fell in love with in college.

"I wish there was a phrase that I could give you that could turn this around and make you believe there is good, there is real, real good in this person," defense attorney Pat Harris said during closing arguments. "But I don't have that phrase ... that's up to you to decide."


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