(CN) — Convicted murderer Scott Peterson — who made national headlines in the early 2000s when he was convicted of killing his wife and unborn son in Central California — spent five hours in court Thursday as prosecutors and defense attorneys argued over whether he should be retried due to jury selection errors and juror misconduct.
Peterson appeared before San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo alongside his attorney Pat Harris and Stanislaus County Assistant District Attorney David Harris. The parties spent nearly five hours arguing their positions before Massullo asked them to submit additional briefs by Sept. 16. “It’s more of a civil process that we have in civil cases,” said Massullo, who explained she wanted to give everyone an opportunity to address their arguments in more detail.
A jury convicted Peterson, now 49, of murdering his wife Laci and their unborn son Conner in the Stanislaus County city of Modesto. 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.
Conner's body washed ashore in the San Francisco Bay on April 13, 2003, a few miles north of the Berkeley marina. Laci's badly decomposed body was discovered a short distance away the following day. 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 confronted Peterson on Dec. 6, 2002, about being married. According to Frey, Peterson cried and told her he was a widower. She contacted police after she learned Peterson was at the center of his wife’s disappearance.
On Nov. 12, 2004, a jury convicted Peterson of first-degree murder in the death of Laci and second-degree murder in Conner’s death. Jurors then 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 were familiar with the case. But on appeal, Peterson argued he didn’t get a fair trial in San Mateo County either due to national publicity surrounding the case.
The California Supreme Court found lawyers made grave errors during the jury selection process, including dismissing some prospective jurors who indicated in their questionnaires that they were opposed to the death penalty, and overturned Peterson’s death sentence in August 2020. Then-Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager chose not to retry Peterson, settling instead for a new sentence of life without parole.
But Peterson has demanded a new trial, claiming he didn't get a fair trial because Juror No. 7 — a woman named Richelle Nice — did not disclose she had been a victim of a crime.
Massullo examined the claims this past February, finding Nice had been the center of a domestic dispute before jury selection and had discussed participating in book deal during the trial. Additionally, the court found Nice had sent several letters to Peterson asking why he killed his wife and why men cheat which, apparently, she did at the suggestion of her therapist. The court also found Nice had given Connor the nickname “Little Man," which Peterson’s lawyer argues indicates she was obsessed with the case and had a bias against Peterson.
Since then, prosecutors and defense lawyers have speculated about Nice’s behavior, particularly whether she intentionally lied during jury selection to financially benefit from the trial or further a personal vendetta against Petersen from her experience as a crime victim.
According to assistant DA Harris, Nice did not intentionally lie on her jury selection forms but instead filled them out badly and misunderstood the questions. Additionally, Harris argued Nice had a subjective perspective of what constituted a victim of a crime and that, since 2000, the public's understanding of certain criminal behavior like stalking and assault has changed.
As for the letters, Harris said, “These are after-the-fact letters written at a suggestion from a mental health professional based on the issues that Ms. Nice was going through at the time based on the evidence that’s before the court. There’s nothing in there, in any of those letters, that says, hey, by the way, when I was filling out questionnaire, here’s what I did.”
Harris then cited previous testimony where the court learned how Peterson’s trial negatively affected jurors. “Those letters do nothing other than kind of help share that anguish that Ms. Nice had gone through,” said Harris. “She testified that this case had changed her, and she broke down on the stand at one particular part.”
Peterson’s lawyer, Pat Harris, said the letters provided just as much insight into Nice’s state of mind as testimony from a witness who heard Nice say, “Let’s get him for what he did to Little Man.”
“The fact is that those letters have a number of different subjects but the one thing they all have in common is Little Man,” said Pat Harris. “That the one subject all of them have in common.”
Pat Harris also argued that despite any financial incentive Nice had from participating in the trial, such as releasing a book, she still eagerly participated when she was unaware that her employer would pay her for the duration of jury duty.
“At that point, she did not know she was going to get paid,” said Pat Harris. “All she knew at that point was that she had $3,800 in monthly expenses, $1,800 monthly income, $400 in child support, $160 in the bank and four young children at home. She did not know at that point that she would, in fact, receive payment throughout jury service.”
Nice’s willingness to serve despite her financial hardships showed Nice’s “eagerness to get on the jury," he added.Follow @alannamayhampdx
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