Published January 14, 2015
The jury that convicted Scott Peterson (search) of murder reconvenes this week to decide whether he should be executed, but the decision may not be final for years given his numerous options for appeal.
Appeals are expected to focus on the performance of Peterson's high-profile Los Angeles attorney, Mark Geragos (search), legal experts said.
"An appellate attorney would argue that Geragos was incompetent," said Pete Kossoris, a retired Ventura County death penalty prosecutor. "One of the things he can be criticized for was his promise of certain evidence in his opening statement, and he never offered it."
Geragos, as with others involved in the case, remains under a court-imposed gag order.
After a five-month trial that became a national sensation, Peterson was convicted Nov. 12 of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Laci, and second-degree murder in the death of the fetus she carried. Arguments begin Tuesday in the trial's penalty phase, in which the same jury will decide whether he should get the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
A celebrity lawyer who has represented such well-known clients as Winona Ryder (search) and Michael Jackson, Geragos will not represent Peterson once he is sentenced. State-appointed, publicly funded lawyers will take over, a standard practice in California murder appeals.
The effectiveness of the defense is a bread-and-butter issue for appeal in capital cases, experts said.
In his opening statements to jurors in June, Geragos floated a series of explanations for the murders of Peterson's wife, Laci, and the fetus she carried. Among them was that members of a satanic cult abducted his pregnant wife and that the "real" killer framed Scott Peterson after learning about his alibi, which was widely circulated in the media.
Geragos never backed up his opening statements, which could have prejudiced jurors against his client.
Peterson's possible grounds for appeal also include the dismissal of two jurors during deliberations. One was ousted after performing her own research on the case; the reason for removing the other juror, who was the foreman of the panel, has not been disclosed.
Then there are the numerous hearings regarding evidence — what was allowed before the jury and what was excluded.
Perhaps the most damning evidence against the 32-year-old former fertilizer salesman was the hundreds of secret recordings between Peterson and his mistress, Amber Frey, but defense attorneys could argue that the recordings were inflammatory and not relevant to the case.
The recordings portrayed Peterson as a liar and an uncaring husband in the days after his wife was reported missing on Christmas Eve 2002.
Frey's testimony revealed how Peterson continued to pursue her even as others searched for his wife. Laci Peterson's body and that of her fetus ultimately washed ashore in San Francisco Bay, near where Peterson claims he was fishing the day she disappeared.
Prosecutors proposed a number of motives for the murder before finally asserting that Peterson killed his wife so he could live the life of a freewheeling bachelor. He was carrying Viagra when he was arrested after his wife's body was identified.
Over Geragos' objection, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Alfred A. Delucchi allowed a manager of a satellite television company to testify that Peterson ordered pornographic programming shortly after his wife's disappearance.
"The jury can draw whatever inferences they want from that," Delucchi said in admitting the manager's testimony.
Daniel Horowitz, a criminal defense attorney who is closely following the case, said the pornography evidence should not have been admitted.
"It doesn't contribute to a criminal mind," he said. "It certainly may have prejudiced the jury."
Other appeals are likely to detail evidence the defense was barred from including, experts said.
The judge blocked Geragos from presenting to jurors a video made by his defense team that showed a replica of Peterson's fishing boat tipping as someone tries to dump a weighted object overboard. Prosecutors said Peterson used a recently purchased aluminum boat to dispose of his wife's body in the bay.
The trial's venue also provides a possible route for appeal.
The case was moved to Redwood City from the Peterson's hometown of Modesto, where authorities believe the murders occurred, after a judge concluded that an impartial jury could not be seated in the couple's hometown.
During the second month of jury selection in Redwood City, Geragos unsuccessfully sought to move the trial to Los Angeles. He said an impartial jury could not be found in Redwood City, a suburb of San Francisco about 70 miles from Modesto.