Scott Peterson’s death sentence overturned by California Supreme Court

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Monday unanimously reversed the death sentence handed down to Scott Peterson in the 2002 murder of his pregnant wife.

The court upheld Peterson’s 2004 murder conviction in the killing of Laci Peterson, 27, who was eight months pregnant with their unborn son, Connor. Investigators said that on Christmas Eve 2002, Scott Peterson dumped the bodies from his fishing boat into San Francisco Bay, where they surfaced months later.

On Monday, the court determined that 13 prospective jurors were wrongfully dismissed during the penalty phase of Scott Peterson’s trial based on a written questionnaire. In an opinion for the court penned by Justice Leondra Kruger, justices said that the trial judge “made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase.”

“While a court may dismiss a perspective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror’s vies on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” Kruger wrote.

“Peterson contends that, absent any indication these jurors would be unable to faithfully and impartially apply the law, it was error to remove them from the juror pool. On this initial point, Peterson is correct.”

The court rejected arguments that Scott Peterson had received an unfair trial based on the amount of publicity the case garnered. Before his trial, proceedings in the case had been moved nearly 90 miles away from his Central Valley home of Modesto to San Mateo County, south of San Francisco.

"Precisely because this case was the subject of such widespread media attention, it is unclear what purpose a second change of venue would have serviced," Kruger wrote.

"The publicity the Peterson trial generated, like the trials of O.J. Simpson and the Manson family, and any number of other so-called trials of the century before them, was intrinsic to the case, not the place. … There is no rational reason to think coverage would have been any less in Los Angeles County -- one of the media capitals of the world -- if Peterson's motion had been granted."

Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager did not immediately say if she would again seek the death penalty.

Scott Peterson was arrested in April 2003, months after Amber Frey, a massage therapist living in Fresno, came forward to police to say that they had begun dating a month before Laci Peterson’s death. Frey told authorities that Scott Peterson initially claimed to have never been married but that he later told her that he had “lost” his wife.

In November 2004, a jury convicted Scott Peterson of one count of first-degree murder for Laci Peterson’s death and one count of second-degree murder for the death of their unborn son. Scott Peterson, now 47, remains jailed at San Quentin State Prison.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.