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Scott Peterson Death Penalty Overturned by California Supreme Court

Scott Peterson’s death sentence for the murder of his wife and unborn son was dismissed on Monday by the California Supreme Court reported NBC News.  Peterson’s conviction on the same charges was upheld, however.

Peterson was found guilty of the murders of Laci Peterson, 27 at the time of her death in 2002, and the couple’s unborn child, Connor.  He was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to death in 2005.  Peterson has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison since then, according to  

Peterson was leading a double life at the time of his wife’s murder.  He was having an affair with Amber Frey, a Fresno therapist, that began a month before his wife’s death on Christmas Eve of 2002.  Frey was instrumental in the ultimate capture and conviction of Peterson after she agreed to wear a wire to record their conversations.

The case made national headlines and was a media sensation for months.  Investigators examined over 10,000 tips and conducted countless interviews in an effort to find Laci Peterson’s killer.  That very publicity formed the basis of Peterson’s appeals to have his conviction overturned.  The California Supreme Court said in its ruling, “Peterson contends his trial was flawed for multiple reasons, beginning with the unusual amount of pretrial publicity that surrounded the case. We reject Peterson’s claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder.”  However, the court found the original 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.”

The court’s unanimous ruling found that prospective jurors were improperly dismissed from the juror pool after saying that they were personally against the death penalty but would vote to impose it according to state law.  “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,” the court said it its statement.

The court rejected Peterson’s claim that the pretrial publicity around his case prevented him from receiving a fair trial.  The original trial was held in San Mateo County south of San Francisco, about 90 miles away from Peterson’s home in Central Valley.

The court’s ruling allows the state to once again seek the death penalty in a new sentencing phase.  Birgit Fladager, the Stanislaus County District Attorney, did not say whether she will pursue the death penalty again.  No one has actually been executed in California in 14 years due to legal challenges.

Cliff Gardner, Scott Peterson’s appellate attorney, reacted to the courts ruling.  “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,” he said.  “While we are disappointed that such a biased jury selection process results in a reversal of only the death sentence,” he continued, “we look forward to the Court’s review of the new forensic and eyewitness evidence of innocence.”

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