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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
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Scott Peterson makes bid to clear his name by DNA testing evidence from pregnant wife’s murder

A Modesto man implicated in his pregnant wife's death decades ago still seeks to clear his name for her killing, following a sentence to life without parole.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) — A man convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son in 2002 was present only via a computer screen in a Northern California courtroom Wednesday, staying silent to let his attorneys argue that evidence from the crime scene should get tested for DNA in an another attempt to exonerate him.

Scott Peterson watched from Mule Creek State Prison on Wednesday as his attorneys told San Mateo Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Hill that the court has discretion to allow testing items of evidence found investigating the deaths of his wife, Laci, and unborn son.

Those include a bloody mattress found inside a burned-out van near the Peterson’s Modesto home, a tarp and plastic bag found in the San Francisco Bay 20 feet from where Laci’s remains were discovered and duct tape and twine found on the remains of Laci’s fetus.

FILE - In this March 17, 2005 file photo Scott Peterson is escorted by two San Mateo County Sheriff deputies to a waiting van in Redwood City, Calif. The California Supreme Court has overturned the 2005 death sentence for Peterson in the slaying of his pregnant wife. The court says prosecutors may try again for the same sentence if they wish in the high-profile case. It upheld his 2004 conviction of murdering Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant with their unborn son. (AP Photo/Justin Sullivan, Pool, File)

“There is no direct evidence implicating Scott Peterson in this case. It was a circumstantial case from the beginning,” Los Angeles Innocence Project attorney and director Paula Mitchell, representing Peterson, said.

Prosecutors in Peterson's 2004 trial said he killed his wife and unborn son, and transported Laci’s body in the bed of a pickup truck in broad daylight to a public boat dock and motored her body out in a boat to dump her in the Bay using concrete anchors. 

“There is absolutely no physical or forensic evidence supporting that theory,” Mitchell said, adding that hundreds of items tested in crime labs had no connection to Peterson.

Mitchell also accused the Modesto Police Department of inadequate records keeping during the investigation process, and attacked the district attorney for charging Peterson with murder anyway. She said that many witnesses’ statements were not stored in the Modesto Police Department, including from witnesses who said they saw Laci Peterson walking the family dog or getting into a van. Some witnesses have since passed away. 

For that reason, Peterson also wants the court to require that the state provide pieces of evidence and records which Mitchell said were not available to the jury which convicted him, like recordings of people convicted of a burglary near the Peterson home around Dec. 24.

“We are trying to figure out exactly what happened in this case,” Mitchell said. “It is unfortunately not at all uncommon for witnesses’ memories to fail, for witnesses to pass away.”

Deputy District Attorney David Harris argued Peterson wrongly assumes it is in the public interest to test every piece of evidence if possible.

“That’s what the defendant said in 2013,” Harris said, when Peterson first filed a motion for DNA testing. This is his third attempt at this, which relies on a misinterpretation of the law, he said. 

Harris said the court cannot accept that the defense has met the requirements to grant the motion, in part because he has already been caught in “lie after lie after lie" in years of investigation.

“DNA testing is post-conviction. It is collateral on the conviction in this case,” Harris said. 

He added that certain pieces of evidence were never tested as they were already known to be contaminated by ocean water and other exposure and may now not be able to be tested reliably at all, decades from their collection.

By Wednesday night, Judge Hill ruled to deny Peterson's request to test all but one of the 14 items presented. She granted the testing of one item: a “15.5-inch length of duct tape,” recovered from Laci Peterson’s pants at the time of autopsy. 

The parties return to court July 1 to resolve any outstanding disputes regarding the identity of the DNA testing lab and who will pay for the testing, followed by another full-day hearing on the matter July 15.

Peterson, now 51, received a life sentence without the possibility of parole in 2021. The California Supreme Court spared his life in an August 2020 ruling that overturned his death sentence because the trial court made “significant errors in jury selection.”

Evidence presented at Peterson’s 2004 trial indicated that the murder was premeditated — Peterson had researched San Francisco Bay wind and tide conditions and secretly bought a used fishing boat in the weeks leading up to Laci’s disappearance. Peterson said he left their Modesto home early on Christmas Eve in 2002 to go fishing at the Berkeley marina on the San Francisco Bay, 90 miles away, and that Laci was alive and well when he left.

He’d also been carrying on an affair with Amber Frey, who confronted Peterson about being married in 2003. Following Frey's contacting police about the affair, Conner Peterson's body washed ashore 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.

Police subsequently arrested Peterson in San Diego with nearly $15,000 in cash, foreign currency, two driver's licenses, a family member’s credit card, camping gear and multiple cellphones, according to court records. 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. 

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Categories / Courts, Criminal, Law

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