REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – A jury convicted Scott Peterson on Friday of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and now will decide whether the philandering husband whose lurid trial became a TV and tabloid sensation should pay with his life.
Peterson, 32, was convicted of one count of first-degree murder for killing his wife and one count of second-degree murder in the death of the son she was carrying – crimes that prosecutors said were part of a cold-blooded plot to escape marriage and fatherhood for the freewheeling single life.
The five-month trial proved irresistible to the tabloids, People magazine and the cable networks with its story of an attractive, radiant young couple awaiting the birth of their first child, a cheating husband, and a slaying for which prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, no weapon, not even a cause of death.
Laci Peterson’s mother sobbed as the verdicts were read, and her son wrapped his arm tightly around her. The victim’s friends in the gallery, arms around each other, cried. Scott Peterson looked straight ahead with no show of emotion as the verdict was read, then stared down each of the jurors as they were polled to confirm their decisions. The jurors had serious looks on their faces and did not appear to look back.
Cheers broke out among the hundreds of onlookers who gathered outside the courthouse – some of them pumping their fists in celebration upon hearing the news on the radio. They cheered Laci Peterson’s family and booed Scott’s as they left court. In the Petersons’ hometown of Modesto, horns honked as the news reached car radios.
“He’s a sicko. He needs to fry. I wanted to see that justice was served,” Bob Johnston said outside court.
The verdict capped a tumultuous seven days of deliberations in which two jurors were removed for unspecified reasons and the judge twice told the panel to start over. The final jury deliberated for about seven hours Wednesday and Friday before reaching its verdict, which the judge prohibited from being carried on television except by audio feed.
The same jury of six men and six women will return Nov. 22 to begin hearing testimony on whether Peterson should die by lethal injection or get life in prison without parole. The former fertilizer salesman faces the death penalty because he was convicted of multiple murders.
Prosecutors, defense lawyers and close family members remain under a gag order that prevents them from commenting. Defense attorney Mark Geragos was in Los Angeles when the verdict was announced.
The Laci Peterson saga began nearly two years ago, when the 27-year-old substitute teacher, who was eight months pregnant, vanished around Christmas Eve 2002. Four months later, her headless body and the remains of her fetus were discovered along the San Francisco Bay shoreline about 90 miles from the couple’s Modesto home – not far from where her husband claims he was fishing alone the day of her disappearance.
Peterson was soon arrested in the San Diego area, more than 400 miles from home, carrying nearly $15,000, his hair and goatee bleached blond.
Police never were able to establish exactly when, how or where Laci died.
At trial, prosecutors presented 174 witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence, from wiretapped phone calls to videotaped police interrogations, depicting Peterson as a liar and a cheat who was sweet-talking his girlfriend, massage therapist Amber Frey, at the same time he was trying to show the world he was pining for his missing wife.
Prosecutor Rick Distaso told the jury Peterson could not stand the thought of being trapped in a “dull, boring, married life with kids,” and either strangled or smothered his wife and dumped her weighted-down body overboard from his fishing boat.
“He wants to live the rich, successful, freewheeling bachelor life. He can’t do that when he’s paying child support, alimony and everything else,” Distaso said. “He didn’t want to be tied to this kid the rest of his life. He didn’t want to be tied to Laci for the rest of his life. So he killed her.”
The jury heard how Peterson had bought a two-day ocean-fishing license days before his wife disappeared, yet claimed his fishing trip was a last-minute substitution for golf because of blustery weather. Prosecutors also offered evidence suggesting he used a bag of cement mix to make concrete anchors to sink his wife’s body into the bay.
In January, the trial was moved to Redwood City after defense attorneys argued Peterson had been demonized in his hometown of Modesto to the point that he couldn’t get a fair trial there.
News of the verdict spread quickly throughout both towns. In a Mexican restaurant in Modesto, customer Amy Tran shouted “Yes!”
As Scott Peterson’s family was rushed away by police, someone in the crowd outside court booed his mother. Someone else shouted “SHE didn’t kill her!”
The morning Redwood City Daily News printed 10,000 copies of an eight-page extra edition with the banner headline, “Guilty: Crowds Cheer Verdict,” minutes after it was announced, and distributed free copies outside the courthouse, where people cheered and waved the papers over their heads. The afternoon San Mateo County Times came out quickly with an edition topped with the headline “Verdict: Scott Killed Laci.”
Peterson never took the stand in the case. His lawyers argued that he was the victim of a set-up. They suggested that someone else – perhaps homeless people, sex offenders or suspicious-looking characters spotted in the neighborhood – abducted Laci Peterson while she walked the dog, then killed her and dumped the body in the water after learning of Peterson’s fishing-trip alibi.
Peterson’s lawyers also offered evidence that the fetus may have died days or weeks after the disappearance, when Scott was being watched closely by the police and the media.
And they explained his lies and inconsistent statements about his affair and his activities around the time of the disappearance as the mutterings of a man in the midst of a breakdown over his missing wife.
Geragos acknowledged the jurors probably hated Peterson, and pleaded with them not to convict him simply because the prosecution had made him look like a “jerk and a liar.”
Geragos also noted the lingering questions about how Laci died. “Maybe the logical explanation for the fact that we have no evidence of her struggling in that house, dying in that house is because it didn’t happen in that house,” he said.
In addition, Geragos said police found that someone had used a computer in the Petersons’ home on the morning Laci vanished – after authorities contend she was already dead – to search Web sites for a scarf and a sunflower-motif umbrella stand. He suggested the user was Laci Peterson.
The story provided an endless source of fascination to cable networks, which almost every night brought in experts to pick apart the two sides’ legal strategies and expound on some of the soap opera aspects of the case, which included hours of secretly taped calls in which Peterson spun out elaborate tales to Frey.
Frey herself testified, saying that Peterson told her during their affair that he had “lost his wife.” But she said that in all their recorded conversations, he repeatedly professed his love for his wife and never said anything to incriminate himself in her slaying.
“I don’t think the jury could ever have looked at Scott Peterson the same way after they heard those tape recordings. Lie after lie after lie,” Frey’s attorney, Gloria Allred, said after the verdict.