Thursday, November 1, 2007
Court Denies Scott Peterson’s Bid for Wife’s Life Insurance Proceeds
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The administrator of Laci Peterson’s estate can use Scott Peterson’s conviction for first degree murder in his wife’s death to bar him from collecting $250,000 as a beneficiary under his wife’s life insurance policy, the Fifth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In a decision published yesterday, the court affirmed the decision of Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Roger M. Beauchesne that Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson’s mother, may rely on the conviction as conclusive evidence that Scott Peterson feloniously and intentionally killed his wife, even though the conviction is not a final judgment because of a pending appeal.
Rocha had sought to prevent Peterson from collecting the proceeds from the policy under provisions in the state Probate Code that prohibit murderers from collecting on the life insurance policies of their victims.
A jury found Peterson, 35, guilty of the murder of his wife and their unborn son in 2004, and he was sentenced to death. Peterson currently resides on death row at San Quentin State Prison, and is appealing his conviction to the California Supreme Court.
At the time of her death, Laci Peterson was covered by the life insurance policy issued by Principal Life Insurance Company, which named Scott Peterson as the beneficiary.
After Peterson was charged with his wife’s murder, but before his conviction, the insurance company brought an interpleader action. The company alleged that both Peterson and Rocha claimed the proceeds from the policy, so it asked the trial court for an order discharging it from any liability to the parties, and directing them to litigate their claims amongst themselves.
Peterson and Rocha agreed to the entry of the order, so the insurance company deposited the proceeds with the court clerk and was dismissed from the proceedings.
Rocha then moved for summary judgment, asking the court to take judicial notice of Peterson’s conviction and bar him from collecting the proceeds under Secs. 252 and 254 of the Probate Code.
Sec. 252 provides that when the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy “feloniously and intentionally kills” the insured, the beneficiary is not entitled to any benefit under the policy, and the policy becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the victim.
Sec. 254 provides in subsection (a) that a “final judgment of conviction of felonious and intentional killing” is conclusive for the purposes of Sec. 252, and in subsection (b) that, in the absence of a final judgment, the court can determine that a killing was felonious and intentional if the party seeking such a declaration so establishes by a preponderance of the evidence.
Peterson opposed the motion, arguing that his conviction was not final because of the appeal and that the evidence in Rocha’s request for judicial notice failed to meet the requisite burden of proof. However, the only additional evidence that he presented was a declaration from his attorney stating that his criminal conviction was on appeal.
Although the trial court agreed with Peterson that his conviction was not final, it nonetheless granted summary judgment for Rocha, determining that she had established that Peterson had feloniously and intentionally murdered his wife. As a result, Peterson was not entitled to collect on the policy, and the court awarded the proceeds to Rocha.
The Court of Appeal affirmed in an opinion by Presiding Justice James A. Ardaiz.
He opined that comments to Sec. 254(a) by the California Law Revision Commission left “no doubt” that the subsection was intended to exclude a conviction on appeal. He also noted that the language of the subsection mirrored the Uniform Probate Code, which had never been construed in a contrary manner.
As a result, he said, Rocha had failed to demonstrate the existence of a “final judgment of conviction” as the term was contemplated in the section.
However, Ardaiz agreed with the trial court that the conviction, despite Peterson’s appeal, could constitute substantial evidence of a felonious and intentional killing for the purpose of satisfying Sec. 254(b), and Rocha could thus rely on the conviction in her attempt to prevent Peterson from receiving the proceeds under Sec. 252.
Ardaiz wrote that Rocha, as the functional equivalent of a plaintiff in her summary judgment motion, bore the burden to present evidence requiring a reasonable trier of fact to find more likely than not that Peterson had feloniously and intentionally killed his wife. Peterson would then be required to present some evidence to the contrary.
“Absent such evidence,” Ardaiz said, “there would be no factual dispute to take to a trial.”
Because Rocha’s motion relied on Peterson’s conviction as evidence, Ardaiz examined whether the conviction was admissible under Evidence Code Sec. 1300, which provides that evidence of a “final judgment adjudging a person guilty of a crime punishable as a felony” does not become inadmissible under the rule against hearsay when the evidence is offered in a civil action to prove a fact essential to the judgment.
In contrast with the court’s earlier determination regarding a “final judgment” under the Probate Code, Ardaiz wrote that the Legislature had intended the phrase in Evidence Code Sec. 1300 to include a judgment of conviction, even when an appeal was pending.
Pointing to comments by the law revision commission, and to the Uniform Rules of Evidence, which supported this conclusion, Ardaiz wrote that a conviction for first degree murder was prima facie evidence of a felonious and intentional killing.
Consequently, he said, the trial court had ruled correctly because Rocha’s evidence was both sufficient and unrebutted.
“Any evidence that appellant did not feloniously and intentionally kill his wife would have created a triable issue of fact,” he said. “Appellant presented no such evidence, and the superior court properly granted the Administrator’s motion.”
Attorneys for the parties did not return calls seeking comment. Peterson was represented by Matthew J. Geragos and Eugene Patterson Harris of Geragos & Geragos, Rocha by Adam J. Stewart of the Modesto firm Moorad, Clark & Stewart.
Ardaiz was joined in his opinion by Justices Gene M. Gomes Stephen Kane.
The case is Principal Life Insurance Company v. Peterson, 07 S.O.S. 5447.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company