Tuesday, August 25, 2020
By Sandra Hong, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday reversed a 2005 death penalty sentence for Scott Peterson, who was found guilty of the murders of his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn son, after determining that the trial court made a series of “clear and significant errors” during jury selection that undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at sentencing.
Justice Leondra R. Kruger wrote the opinion for a unanimous court. It affirms the judgment of conviction—rejecting Peterson’s contention that that jury selection error and the enormous amount of publicity surrounding his case prevented him from receiving a fair trial—and remands for resentencing in the San Mateo Superior Court.
In this 2005 file photo, Scott Peterson waits for a sheriff’s van in Redwood City.
The trial was held in 2004 after a change of venue motion was granted and removed proceedings from Stanislaus County, where Peterson and his wife had lived.
In his appeal, Peterson argued that Alfred Delucchi, a retired Alameda Superior Court judge , serving on assignment to the San Mateo Superior Court (and now deceased) improperly excused potential jurors based on their answers in a written questionnaire expressing opposition to the death penalty. Without further inquiry into whether their death penalty views would impair their ability to uphold the law, removing them from the jury pool constituted error, Peterson contended.
Kruger agreed, citing the U.S. Supreme Court cases of Witherspoon v. Illinois, decided in 1968, and Wainwright v. Witt, handed down in 1985, which together “make clear that prospective jurors may not be disqualified from service simply because they object to the death penalty as a general matter” so long as they are capable of following the law, she said.
“Here, there was not just one error; there were many,” Kruger wrote. “We are therefore required to reverse the death judgment. Contrary to Peterson’s argument, however, we are not also required to reverse the judgment of guilt.”
After a four-month trial, a jury found Peterson guilty of first-degree murder of his wife and second-degree murder of their unborn child. The jury sentenced Peterson to death a month after the guilty verdict.
Laci Peterson, 27, was nearly eight months pregnant when she disappeared from the couple’s home in Modesto on Christmas Eve in 2002. Her body was found washed ashore the San Francisco Bay about four months later.
Jury selection began in March 2004. Potential jurors were asked to fill out a questionnaire with about 120 questions, 13 of which asked about their views on the death penalty.
Peterson pointed out 13 prospective jurors who were excused after expressing opposition to question 109 on the survey: “How would you rate your attitude towards the death penalty?” These same jurors also answered “no” to question 105: “Do you have any moral, religious, or philosophical opposition to the death penalty so strong that you would be unable to impose the death penalty regardless of the facts?”
Kruger concluded that the potential jurors in question were excused without cause.
“The trial court excused more than a dozen prospective jurors based solely on their written opposition to the death penalty (question No. 109), without also considering their answers to question No. 115, which reflected the jurors’ ability to impose the death penalty in some circumstances,” she said.
Trial Court Record
In reviewing the trial record, Kruger noted specific comments by Delucchi during jury selection. In one instance, a potential juror indicated he was “strongly opposed” to the death penalty, to which Delucchi said:
“I don’t think this person would qualify because of his answers, and he’s opposed to the death penalty. So I would be inclined to excuse him.”
Peterson’s counsel made a “vehement objection” to the juror’s excusal.
Kruger noted such instances “were not isolated” and that a fair determination of a juror’s ability to serve required further inquiry into whether they were capable of imposing the death penalty if the evidence supported it.
“The law is clear that a capital jury may include those who, as an abstract matter, oppose—or even strongly oppose—the death penalty, though a prosecutor might seek to limit the number of such jurors,” Kruger wrote. “Eligibility for service does not depend on a juror’s abstract views of capital punishment. It depends, instead, on the prospective juror’s willingness and ability to follow a court’s instructions and conscientiously consider both penalties in light of the evidence presented by each side.”
Guilty Verdict Appeal
Peterson had asked the court to reverse the guilty verdict by arguing errors in jury selection tainted all aspects of the trial, not only the sentencing phase. Kruger rejected Peterson’s argument, citing various court precedent upholding guilty verdicts while finding error in death sentencing.
“Both the United States Supreme Court and this court have previously declined to take this additional step, and Peterson offers no persuasive ground for doing so here,” she wrote.
Peterson also claimed court error in denying his second motion for change of venue after jury selection began in March 2004. He argued that the juror questionnaire answers showed overwhelming bias due to the amount of worldwide publicity making it “perhaps the most widely covered trial in American history.”
Peterson had asked for the trial to be removed from San Mateo to Los Angeles, where he claimed he could have received a fairer trial. Kruger concluded a second change of venue would have made little difference.
“Given the level of public interest, this case could have attracted attention in any venue in which it was held,” Kruger wrote. “There is no rational reason to think coverage would have been any less in Los Angeles County – one of the media capitals of the world – if Peterson’s motion had been granted.”
Peterson has been in San Quentin State Prison since 2005. California has not executed anyone since 2006, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a moratorium on executions for as long as he is in office.
The case is People v. Peterson, 2020 S.O.S. 4058.
Copyright 2020, Metropolitan News Company