SAN MATEO, Calif. — Scott Peterson was tried and convicted of killing his wife Laci and their unborn child back in 2004. Nearly two decades later, Peterson is still guilty according to the Supreme Court of California, but might not have received a fair jury trial, experts say.
Blake Wilson, a legal expert and professor at Stanislaus State University, says the process that Peterson’s case followed is exactly what happens after a person is condemned, but the overturning of his death sentence is something a bit rarer.
With a resentencing for Peterson set for Dec. 8 and a hearing for a potential retrial in 2022, Wilson spoke with ABC10 about what exactly is going on with the Peterson case, why it’s so talked about and what exactly comes next.
What is Scott Peterson’s Wednesday hearing about?
In the simplest terms, Peterson is expected to be re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the killings of Laci Peterson and their unborn child.
What happened to Peterson's death sentence?
Peterson’s death sentence was overturned by the California Supreme Court. Wilson said that’s because the death penalty carries a lot of rules that have to be followed and a judge failed to meet some of them.
“We are here again, for this one sort of very simple reason based upon a fairly complex legal history -- It's for Peterson's re-sentencing. His guilty verdict stands. The Supreme Court didn't touch that, but they did vacate his death penalty based upon this faulty procedure that the judge has followed. That leaves only one option for the court, a new judge, and that's to sentence Peterson to life in prison. And that's what's going to happen on Wednesday,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the California Supreme Court threw out the death penalty conviction after a judge improperly excused jurors who voiced opposition to the death penalty without asking whether or not they could still be fair in their verdict.
“In other words, people that may have been sympathetic to Peterson, not on the issue of guilt but on the issue of his punishment, were kicked off that jury,” Wilson said.
Peterson’s case got to that point through a direct appeal process. Wilson said that, after the death penalty conviction was overturned, the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office chose not to retry the penalty phase with a different jury, and that left only one option, life in prison.
“Suffice it to say, the judge in this case, didn't follow the law, kicked off any juror who said they had a philosophical opposition to the death penalty. And what that meant was, and this is the Supreme Court agrees with Peterson on this, it meant that he did not receive a fair trial composed of a cross-section of the jury pool,” Wilson said.
View the courtroom feed from the San Mateo Superior Court YouTube page:
Is Peterson getting another trial in 2022?
Peterson and his attorneys have a habeas corpus petition that is trying to overturn his guilty verdict based on what they described as evidence of jury misconduct. He’ll have a hearing in 2022, but Wilson says this could be a longshot effort.
A juror in the Peterson case didn’t mention that she was involved in an abusive relationship while pregnant.
This hearing based on the habeas corpus petition has nothing to do with the re-sentencing on Wednesday.
“The likelihood of winning based upon what I've seen, and in my experience, both practicing law and now teaching it to our students at Stanislaus State is that that habeas corpus petition is not going to be successful and that Scott Peterson will not be receiving a new trial next year nor anytime in the future. I believe Scott Peterson will spend the rest of his life behind bars,” Wilson said.
Why are people talking about this case?
There’s a couple of reasons why the case is talked about to this day. It was a high-profile case that garnered a lot of attention back when it happened.
Wilson said the elements of the case drew people in at the time. He said it involved good-looking people, an unborn child, a gruesome retrieval of bodies and a possible affair.
“You add that up, and there's a lot of public interest in it, which leads to media interest or maybe vice versa,” Wilson said.
He said another reason to talk about the case is that an overturned death sentence doesn't necessarily happen often in California. Wilson said the last overturned death sentence was Vicente Benavides in 2018. He said having two instances of that in 3 years is “somewhat of a rarity.”