REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – Scott Peterson's (search) lawyers failed to persuade the jury that someone else killed his pregnant wife. Now, they'll try to persuade the same 12 people to spare him from the death penalty.
But analysts said Peterson himself is unlikely to take the stand and beg for mercy — doing that would require him to admit to the murders, and throw away any chance of overturning the convictions on appeal.
Six men and six women convicted Peterson Friday of the first-degree murder of his wife, Laci, and the second-degree murder of the fetus she was carrying. The couple had planned to name their son Conner (search). The jury also agreed on a "special circumstance" that calls for capital punishment (search) — namely that he killed another person, the fetus, during the premeditated killing of his wife.
Judge Alfred A. Delucchi sent them home until Nov. 22, and urged them to avoid news coverage of the case until the penalty phase, when the defense and prosecution will present exacerbating and mitigating factors. The jury will begin deliberating the former fertilizer salesman's fate on Nov. 30, and be sequestered again until they reach a decision.
The verdicts provided a made-for-cable-TV conclusion to a case that has captivated the nation since Laci Peterson (search) disappeared 23 months ago. Prosecutors portrayed the murders as a restless husband's cold-blooded attempt to escape marriage and fatherhood for the pleasures of the bachelor life.
Scott Peterson, 32, stared straight ahead, then looked at each of the jurors as they were polled to confirm their decisions. Serious and unsmiling, none appeared to return his gaze.
Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, sobbed. Laci's friends in the gallery cried, and loud sighs could be heard across the courtroom. As the courtroom emptied, throngs of well-wishers clapped and cheered. Gwendolyn Kemple, a distant relative of Rocha, was crying and shaking, saying "We're just elated."
Outside the courthouse, it was pandemonium — roars went up from the crowd of about 1,000 with each verdict. In Modesto, drivers honked their horns and others shouted with satisfaction when the news broke on television. Well-wishers descended on Laci's home, leaving notes and flowers.
Laci Peterson's family avoided the throngs by leaving through an underground parking garage, but Scott Peterson's family faced the crowds outside the front door of the courthouse. As police rushed them away, someone in the crowd booed Jackie Peterson, Scott's mother. Someone else shouted "SHE didn't kill her!"
The families, lawyers and others directly involved in the case remain under a gag order until Peterson's sentence is determined. Defense attorney Mark Geragos, who was in Los Angeles when the verdict was announced, did not disclose whether his client plans to appeal.
The verdicts came after a little more than seven hours of deliberation by the final 12 jurors, following a five-month trial and a chaotic final week. The judge removed two jurors for reasons that have not been publicly disclosed.
"Kicking someone off the jury is one of the riskiest things you can do in a trial. On appeal, the court will look at that very carefully, very carefully," said Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor who has been observing the case. "Two jurors in two days? I've never heard of that happening before."
Prosecutors said Peterson killed his 27-year-old wife in their Modesto home on Dec. 23 or Dec. 24, 2002, and then drove his boat and her body 90 miles west and dumped it in San Francisco Bay. The substitute teacher was eight months pregnant when she vanished. Four months later, her remains and those of her fetus washed up just north of the marina where Peterson launched his fishing boat 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.
Annette Anderson, who lives across the street from the Peterson home, said she was happy for the Rocha family and relieved to know Scott Peterson would not be returning to the neighborhood.
"If he were to come back here, then I would be afraid, I'd up and move," she said.
The case became a reliable cover story for tabloids and cable networks. The details — a radiant, 28-year-old woman awaiting the birth of her first child, a cheating husband, and a slaying for which prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, no weapon, not even a cause of death — drew devoted followers who debated every development with endless fascination.
As word of the verdict spread, about 1,000 people gathered outside the courthouse, huddling over portable radios, cell phones and TV news tents.
"He's a sicko. He needs to fry," said Bob Johnston, 42, of San Jose. "I wanted to see that justice was served."
Police never were able to establish exactly when, how or where Laci died, but the circumstantial evidence proved persuasive. Prosecutors presented 174 witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence, from wiretapped phone calls to videotaped police interrogations, depicting Peterson as a liar and philanderer who sweet-talked his massage therapist girlfriend, Amber Frey, while publicly pining for his missing wife.
Peterson never took the stand. His lawyers suggested someone else abducted and killed Laci while she walked the dog, then framed her husband after learning of his fishing-trip alibi. They attributed his lies as the mutterings of a man in the midst of a breakdown over his missing wife.