(CN) — In a San Mateo, California, courtroom Wednesday, Scott Peterson — who has spent nearly two decades on death row for the 2002 slaying of his pregnant wife Laci and unborn son — saw his fate shift somewhat when a judge resentenced him to life in prison without parole.
Then 27, Laci last spoke to her mother on the phone on Dec. 23, 2002, a day before she was reported missing by her husband. She was eight months pregnant with their first child, a boy named Connor. Her mother Sharon Rocha said she still dreams of her daughter.
“Sometimes when I wake up I cry because they were so realistic and I know I'll never see her again. Thank you very much for that,” Rocha said in a statement directed at the masked Peterson, who sat watching the proceedings from the defense table, flanked by his attorneys.
Laci’s brother Brent Rocha, who broke down during his statement, said the murders were “especially heinous as she was 8 months pregnant and then dumped in the SF bay on Christmas Eve simply because Scott didn't want them anymore. It's really disturbing to know your sister and nephew were killed for such an insignificant and selfish reason.”
Rocha said she and her partner Ron Grantski had dinner with Scott and Laci on Dec. 15, one week before Laci went missing. That evening was the last time Rocha saw her daughter alive.
“Over the past 19 years I’ve thought about that evening over and over again. I’ve thought about the four of us sitting at the dinner table, sharing a meal, listening to Laci talk about the baby,” Rocha said. “Then I thought about how all the while that evening you were already planning her murder.”
Evidence presented at Peterson’s 2004 trial showed 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 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 on Dec. 6 about being married. Peterson had cried and told her he was a widower. Fry contacted police after she learned Peterson was at the center of his wife’s disappearance.
Conner'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.
The day Laci and Conner’s remains were identified, police arrested Scott 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. 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, 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.
The California Supreme Court spared Peterson’s life an August 2020 ruling that overturned his death sentence because the trial court made “significant errors in jury selection,” including dismissing some prospective jurors who had indicated in their questionnaires that they were opposed to the death penalty.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager chose not to retry Peterson, settling instead for a new sentence of life without parole.
“We chose life without parole for your resentencing,” Sharon Rocha said, adding a statewide moratorium on the death penalty and the unlikelihood of it being lifted any time soon would necessitate a whole new trial. "This would force us to relive all the painful, agonizing, dark days and months and years that we've had to endured since you murdered Laci and her baby boy. We chose not to completely reopen those wounds.”
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo presided over Wednesday’s hearing and will also examine claims of juror misconduct by Peterson, who says 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 set a hearing on the matter for February.
But on Wednesday, defense attorney Patrick Harris delivered a meandering colloquy about his client, whom he described as "the most hated man in America."
Harris said that despite the portrayal of Peterson as a callow, selfish lout who planned and carried out two murders because he didn’t want the responsibility of fatherhood, Peterson doted on Laci and was excited to be a father. Though much has been made of Peterson's apparent lack of remorse or grief, Peterson wanted to respect the judicial process by refraining from making outsized gestures of grief.
"Despite the accusations and him knowing that he could not and would not murder his wife, he has let the process go forward without trying to do interviews, lash out, become angry," Harris said. "Mr. Peterson respects the process, understands what has to happen."
He added, "This man cares a great deal. This man cares a lot."
But the Rochas aren't buying it. “You haven't shown any grief or sorrow, but I still feel the grief everyday, after 19 years," Sharon Rocha told Peterson. "Laci is dead, Scott, because she loved you she trusted you and she believed in you and you betrayed her and your son and everybody else. Your evil, self-centered, unforgivable selfish act ended two beautiful souls. And for what reason — you just didn't want them anymore. Everybody else wanted her but you chose to get rid of her. You didn't want a baby or the responsibility of being a father. You're a coward.”
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