REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – The judge in the Scott Peterson (search) case ruled Friday the jury will be allowed to consider a lesser murder charge that would spare the former fertilizer salesman a possible death sentence if convicted.
Legal experts said the ruling is a victory for the prosecution because allowing the lesser charges could make it easier for jurors to convict if they are unsure whether the killing was premeditated.
Peterson already faces two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his pregnant wife and the fetus she was carrying. Prosecutors are seeking life without parole or the death penalty under those charges.
But the judge ruled jurors also will have the choice of second-degree murder charges, which could bring two sentences of 15 years to life in prison.
"The jury could say, 'Well, we think that Mr. Peterson killed Laci Peterson (search) but we're not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that there was premeditation,'" Judge Alfred A. Delucchi said in his ruling — part of instructions that will be given to jurors next week.
Also Friday, Delucchi reversed an earlier order allowing television coverage of the verdict.
"I don't want to expose the families to further scrutiny and turn this into some sort of spectacle," the judge said, adding he would not entertain the "morbid curiosity" of the public.
Defense attorneys vehemently objected to the inclusion of the lesser charges because most experts agree the defense has done a good job at explaining away premeditation. In order for the jury to find Peterson guilty of first-degree murder, they must first believe he planned the killing in advance.
"There is no case I've been able to find ... where you have a situation where (prosecutors) can't tell you where, they can't tell you when, they can't tell you how ... and the jury" was given the second-degree option, defense lawyer Mark Geragos (search) told the judge.
"Well, this is going to be the first," Delucchi replied.
Geragos then argued to include voluntary manslaughter as an option. The judge declined.
"I would consider that to be at your peril," Geragos said, alluding to inevitable appeals should there be a conviction.
Prosecutors have built their entire case on premeditation, that Peterson planned for weeks to kill his eight-months pregnant wife, Laci, and had even devised a way to dispose of the body by purchasing a boat.
Peterson is accused of killing his wife on or around Christmas Eve 2002, then dumping the weighted body into San Francisco Bay. The remains of Laci Peterson and her fetus were discovered along a rocky shoreline about four months later, a few miles from where Scott Peterson claims to have gone fishing alone the day his wife vanished.
The trial is in its 22nd week. Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Monday.
Most legal experts agreed the judge's ruling bodes well for prosecution.
"For the most part, it gives jurors a real option to convince or convert any holdouts who aren't so sure about premeditation but may still think he killed his wife," said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman, a regular trial observer. "The most difficult thing in this case for prosecutors to prove has been premeditation."