(CN) — Nearly 16 years after being sentenced to death for the murders of his wife Laci and unborn child, Scott Peterson won a reprieve of sorts Monday: The California Supreme Court reversed his death sentence due to jury selection errors — but the murder convictions stand.
Peterson, now 47, garnered national headlines when he was charged with the murders of his wife Laci and their unborn son. Laci — who was eight months pregnant — had last spoken to her mother by telephone on Dec. 23, 2002, a day before Scott reported her missing.
Laci’s and her unborn son Conner’s remains were discovered on a San Francisco Bay beach in April 2003. Both were identified through DNA.
The day Laci and Conner’s remains were identified, police arrested Scott with nearly $15,000 in cash, foreign currency, two drivers’ licenses, a family member’s credit card, camping gear and multiple cellphones, according to court records. Peterson reportedly had extramarital affairs with multiple women including Amber Frey, who contacted police after she learned that Peterson was at the center of his wife’s disappearance and said Peterson had told her he was unmarried.
In 2004, a jury convicted Peterson of first-degree murder in the death of Laci and second-degree murder in Conner’s death. The jury also returned a verdict of death in the sentencing phase.
The trial had been moved to San Mateo County because so many people in Stanislaus County, where the Petersons lived, were familiar with the case. But on appeal, Peterson argued he didn’t get a fair trial in San Mateo either due to the publicity surrounding the case.
In its 103-page opinion published Monday, the California Supreme Court rejected that argument. However, the justices found the trial court made “significant errors in jury selection.”
“While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror’s views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” Associate Justice Leondra R. Kruger wrote for the unanimous court.
Many prospective jurors were “erroneously dismissed” because of their answers on a written questionnaire in their opposition to the death penalty, even if they did not indicate whether their views would prevent them from following the law, Kruger found.
“Here, there was not just one error; there were many. We are therefore required to reverse the death judgment. Contrary to Peterson’s argument, however, we are not also required to reverse the judgment of guilt,” Kruger wrote.
According to Kruger, the justices had concerns that the process used to remove jurors ran contrary to the standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court. A prospective juror cannot be disqualified based on their objection to the death penalty, nor can they be dismissed because they may “impose a higher threshold before concluding that the death penalty is appropriate,” Kruger wrote.
“The record reveals that many jurors were summarily excused based on their responses to a single question, No. 109: ‘How would you rate your attitude towards the death penalty?’” Kruger noted, adding a second question asked, “Do you have any moral, religious, or philosophical opposition to the death penalty so strong that you would be unable to impose the death penalty regardless of the facts?”
Peterson had argued 13 prospective jurors were excused without further questioning after they responded to question 109, even though they may have answered “no” to the second question.
“The law is clear that a capital jury may include those who, as an abstract matter, oppose — or even strongly oppose — the death penalty, though a prosecutor might seek to limit the number of such jurors,” Kruger wrote. “It may include those who favor — or even strongly favor — the death penalty, though defense counsel might seek to limit their numbers. Eligibility for service does not depend on a juror’s abstract views of capital punishment.”
Prosecutors got the green light to retry the penalty phase of the case, though whether that will occur nearly 16 years after the jury’s original verdict is unclear.
Peterson’s attorney Cliff Gardner praised Monday’s opinion by the Golden State’s highest court.
“We are grateful for the California Supreme Court’s unanimous recognition that if the state wishes to put someone to death, it must proceed to trial only with a fairly selected jury,” Gardner said in a statement. “Prosecutors may not rely on a jury specifically organized by the state to return a verdict of death. And while we are disappointed that such a biased jury selection process results in a reversal of only the death sentence, we look forward to the court’s review of the new forensic and eyewitness evidence of innocence presented in Mr. Peterson’s separate and still pending state habeas petition.”
Gardner said prosecutors must now ask themselves “whether they can prove Mr. Peterson culpable for this crime to even a single juror seated through a fair jury selection process.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said it would let the “decision speak for itself.”
Peterson has been on death row in San Quentin State Prison since March 17, 2005.