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Jury says Scott Peterson should die

Convicted murderer Scott Peterson and his lawyer Geragos during defense closing arguments phase of his trial
Scott Peterson, right, and his attorney, Mark Geragos, listened to closing arguments last week in the penalty phase of Peterson’s murder trial.Fred Larson / Pool via Reuters
/ Source: NBC News and news services

The jury that found Scott Peterson guilty of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and the couple’s unborn son recommended Monday that he should die for his crimes. His attorney immediately said he would appeal.

A cheer went up outside San Mateo County Superior Court as the jury announced its opinion after 11½ hours of deliberations over three days. The jury had two options in advising Judge Alfred A. Delucchi on the fate of Peterson, 32, a former fertilizer salesman: life in prison without parole or death by injection.

Delucchi has the discretion under California law to disregard the jury’s recommendation when he sentences Peterson on Feb. 25. But he has never before done so in a case of this magnitude.

Howard Kutzly, right, Krystyna Wiener, left, and Kimberly Hovorta, second from left in white, react to the verdict outside of the courthouse in Redwood City, Calif., Monday, Dec. 13, 2004. The jury returned with a sentence recommendation of death in the penalty phase of the Scott Peterson case. Peterson was convicted of two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife Laci Peterson and their unborn child. (AP Photo/Justin Sullivan, POOL)Justin Sullivan / GETTY POOL

Peterson clenched his jaw when the recommendation was read and leaned over to speak with his attorney, Mark Geragos, but he showed no other emotion. Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, whose emotional testimony may have been a determining factor in the jury’s recommendation, cried, her lips quivering. Scott Peterson’s mother, Jackie, showed no apparent emotion.

A crowd of several hundred people gathered outside the courthouse to hear the verdict — a scene reminiscent of the day last month when about 1,000 people showed up to hear the announcement of Peterson’s conviction. The San Francisco Examiner came out with a special edition within minutes of the sentence, carrying the giant headline “DEATH.”

‘It spoke for itself’
The six-man, six-woman jury reached its unanimous death penalty decision after finding Peterson guilty of killing Laci Peterson, 27, and her fetus on or around Christmas Eve 2002.

Their bodies were recovered almost four months later on the shore of the San Francisco Bay, near the spot where Scott Peterson said he was fishing alone on the day his wife vanished.

Jurors who chose to speak with reporters afterward said the process was difficult and draining.

“As you can see, I’m an emotional wreck,” said juror Richelle Nice, who then put her head on foreman Stephen Cardosi’s shoulder at a news conference.

Nice said there was little doubt that Peterson deserved to die.

“When you put it all together, it spoke for itself,” she said, vigorously denying a dismissed juror’s contention that the panel came under tremendous pressure to convict Peterson.

“Scott Peterson was Laci’s husband, Conner’s daddy — the one person that should have protected them,” Nice said.

Another juror, Gregory Beratlis, said, “Collaboratively, when you add it all up, there doesn’t appear to be any other possibility.” He agreed that “nobody outside this process influenced my voting.”

“If this person was innocent, we would have walked out of there saying ‘innocent,’” Beratlis insisted.

In a brief statement outside court, Geragos said he would pursue “any and all appeals” and asked the media to respect the privacy of Peterson’s family.

"I hope you can understand it’s a difficult time, and that’s all I’ve got to say,” he said.

The verdict came hours after the jurors asked to review 13 pieces of evidence that were presented during the trial, including autopsy photographs, aerial photos of the area where the bodies were recovered and a photo of a smiling Laci Peterson sitting in a chair taken just 10 days before her disappearance.

Headed for San Quentin
Peterson will remain in the San Mateo County Jail until he is sentenced Feb. 25. He will then be sent to Death Row at San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco, the infamous lockup where prisoners gaze out small cell windows overlooking the same bay where Laci Peterson’s body was discarded.

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 clogged death row houses about 650 people.

After exhausting state appeals, Peterson’s case would move to the federal courts, usually with a new attorney. The case would go to U.S. District Court and then to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has overturned more California death sentences than it has allowed.

Initial support from victim’s family
Defense attorneys called 39 witnesses over seven days in the penalty phase of the double-murder trial. Prosecutors called just four of Laci Peterson’s family members, all on the first day, Nov. 30.

In arguing for death, prosecutors called Peterson “the worst kind of monster” and said he was undeserving of sympathy. The defense begged jurors to “go back there and please spare his life.”

Peterson maintained that he left his wife at their home in Modesto about 9:30 a.m. on the morning she disappeared, setting out on an impromptu fishing trip. When he returned about 5 p.m., his wife was gone, and the couple’s dog was in the backyard wearing a muddy leash, he told police.

Laci Peterson’s family members initially supported Scott Peterson as he publicly pleaded for information on the whereabouts of his missing wife. But they soon began to express doubts about his fishing story. In mid-January, her friends and family held a news conference to demand that he tell authorities everything he knows about the case

Police also began compiling a dossier of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Scott Peterson had killed his wife.

Among other things, they soon discovered that two weeks before she vanished, Peterson paid $1,400 cash for a used fishing boat but told no one.  A search of his computer also showed that the day before he bought the boat, he had researched the bay’s tide and wind conditions and boat launch sites near Berkeley Marina.

A month after Laci Peterson’s disappearance, Amber Frey, a massage therapist in Fresno, came to authorities and said that she had been involved in a romantic relationship with Scott Peterson when his wife had vanished and that he had told her he was a widower.

Days later, Scott Peterson admitted in a televised interview that he had a relationship with Frey and had told his wife about it. “It wasn't anything that would break us apart," he said.

Numerous unsuccessful searches
Volunteers carried out numerous unsuccessful searches in subsequent months but found no sign of Laci Peterson, a substitute schoolteacher.

But the complexion of the case changed dramatically on April 13 and 14, when hikers found the decomposed bodies of a child and a woman on the rocky shore of the San Francisco Bay — just miles from the spot where Scott Peterson told police he went fishing on that fateful Christmas Eve.

Peterson was arrested at Torrey Pines golf resort in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla four days after the second body was found, once DNA testing showed that the bodies were those of Laci Peterson and her fetus.

The case made national headlines from the first days of the frenzied search and eventually prompted a judge to move Peterson’s trial from Modesto to suburban Redwood City, south of San Francisco.