- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — A jury decided today that Scott Peterson should be executed for murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, whose Christmas Eve disappearance two years ago was the opening act in a legal drama that captivated the nation.

A cheer went up outside the courtroom as the jury announced its decision after 11 1/2 hours of deliberations over three days. The jury had two options in deciding the 32-year-old former fertilizer salesman’s fate: life in prison without parole or death by injection.

Peterson clenched his jaw when the verdict was read and leaned over to speak with his attorney, Mark Geragos, but showed no other emotion. Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, cried - her lips quivering. Scott Peterson’s mother, Jackie, showed no apparent emotion.

A crowd of several hundred gathered outside the courthouse to hear the verdict - a scene reminiscent of when about 1,000 people showed up last month for the conviction. The San Francisco Examiner came out with a special edition within minutes of the sentence, with the giant headline “DEATH.”

Judge Alfred A. Delucchi will formally sentence Peterson on Feb. 25. The judge will have the option of reducing the sentence to life, but such a move is highly unlikely.

If the judge upholds the sentence, Peterson will be sent to death row at San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco, the infamous lockup where prisoners gaze out small cell windows overlooking the same bay where Laci Peterson’s body was discarded.

But Peterson still might not be executed for decades - if ever - and it can take years for even the first phase of the appeals process to begin. Since California brought back capital punishment in 1978, only 10 executions have been carried out; the last execution, in 2002, was for a murder committed in 1980. The state’s death row houses about 650 people.

The jury’s decision followed seven days of tearful testimony in the penalty phase of the trial. Shortly before reaching its decision, the jury had asked the judge to see 13 pieces of evidence, including autopsy photos and aerial pictures of San Francisco Bay.

In arguing for death last week, prosecutors called Peterson “the worst kind of monster” and said he was undeserving of sympathy. Geragos begged of jurors: “Just don’t kill him. That’s all I am asking of you. End this cycle.”

The death sentence came almost two years to the date after the disappearance of Laci Peterson, a 27-year-old substitute teacher who married her college sweetheart and was soon to be the proud mother of a baby boy named Conner. The story set off a tabloid frenzy as suspicion began to swirl around Scott Peterson, who claimed to have been fishing by himself on Christmas Eve and was carrying on an affair with a massage therapist at the time.

The remains of Laci and the fetus washed ashore about four months later, just a few miles from where Peterson said he was fishing in the San Francisco Bay. The case went to trial in June, and the jury of six men and six women convicted Peterson last month of two counts of murder.

The case graced more People magazine covers than any murder investigation in the publication’s history. Court TV thrived on the case, providing countless hours of coverage on the investigation and gavel-to-gavel commentary throughout the trial. CNN’s Larry King hosted show after show with pundits picking apart legal strategies, testimony and even Scott Peterson’s demeanor.

Trial regulars showed up by the hundreds to participate in the daily lottery for the coveted 27 public seats inside the courtroom.

Prosecutors spent months portraying Peterson as a cheating husband and cold-blooded killer who wooed his lover even as police searched for his missing wife. They said he wanted to murder Laci to escape marriage and fatherhood for the pleasures of the freewheeling bachelor life.

The prosecution put on a short, but emotional case in the penalty phase, calling just four witnesses.

“Every morning when I get up I cry,” Rocha told jurors. “It takes me a long time just to be able to get out of the house … I miss her. I want to know my grandson. I want Laci to be a mother. I want to hear her called mom.”

Rocha would later rise halfway out of her seat and scream at Scott Peterson, who was seated impassively at the defense table: “Divorce was always an option,” she said. “Not murder!”

Defense attorneys argued during the trial’s guilt phase that Peterson was framed and that the real killers dumped Laci’s body in the water after learning of Peterson’s widely publicized alibi. The defense fought hard to save Peterson’s life, calling about 40 witnesses over seven days in the penalty phase.

After the sentence, Geragos said defense will pursue “every and all appeals,” adding that it’s “a very difficult time. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Defense attorneys seized on anything from Scott Peterson’s past in attempt to spare his life, including testimony that he never cheated or lost his temper on the golf course.

They told jurors of the Scott Peterson who was a smiling, snuggling toddler. He was the high school golf captain who tutored younger students. He sang to seniors on Sundays and once broke up a dog fight. He cared for mentally retarded children. He was the highly motivated son who worked his way through college.

And finally, he was the young professional who married the woman he fell in love with in college.

“I wish there was a phrase that I could give you that could turn this around and make you believe there is good, there is real, real good in this person,” defense attorney Pat Harris said during closing arguments. “But I don’t have that phrase … that’s up to you to decide.”

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