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Scott Peterson was in court Thursday as his attorneys argued the former Modesto fertilizer salesman should get a new trial for the murders of his wife, Laci Peterson, and the couple’s unborn son.
Peterson, 49, sat in court wearing a dark orange uniform and blue face mask, as prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred for more than five hours and a half hours about whether or not a juror’s alleged misconduct had tainted the outcome of his 2004 trial, according to Fox News.
Both sides will have until mid-September to submit memorandums further laying out the arguments before a judge will make a final decision within 90 days about a new trial.
It’s been nearly two decades since a pregnant Laci Peterson disappeared on Christmas Eve in 2002. Laci’s remains and those of the unborn baby — whom the couple had planned to name Conner — washed up along the San Francisco Bay months later, not far from where Scott Peterson had told authorities he had been out fishing the day his wife disappeared.
Scott Peterson was convicted and sentenced to death two years later. The California Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in 2020 and he was re-sentenced late last year to life in prison.
At the center of the legal debate now is whether a juror at his trial, Richelle Nice, had been biased by her own past with domestic violence — a past she had not disclosed on a juror questionnaire.
Nice never disclosed when filling out the jury forms that she’d sought a restraining order in 2000 while pregnant — against the ex-girlfriend of her then-boyfriend — because she “really fears for her unborn child.” She also never reported that her boyfriend had beaten her the year after while she was pregnant with another child, or that she had once filed a lawsuit, the The Associated Press reports.
Nice testified at an earlier hearing that she had not intentionally lied on the form and said she didn’t include those incidents because they “never crossed my mind.”
Peterson’s legal team argued that Nice deliberately lied on the questionnaire so she get could onto the highly-publicized trial and later cash in on the experience, which they say she did by co-authoring a book about the case with six other jurors, according to the AP.
And Peterson’s attorney Cliff Gardner argued there was a discrepancy between her testimony earlier this year and her actions on the jury.
He argued that Nice had worked to convict Peterson and even gave Conner a nickname, calling him “Little Man.” He pointed to a fellow juror’s testimony that when Nice — initially an alternate juror — joined the deliberations she told jurors “We should get Scott for what he did to Laci and ‘little man.’”
She also used the nickname in letters she wrote to Scott Peterson after his conviction.
“She took the extraordinary step after conviction and after having put Mr. Peterson on death row, [of] beginning correspondence with a series of letters. And the court has seen the letters and the letters. Each of them has various focuses, but one of the focuses of every letter is his "little man,’” Gardner argued, according to Fox News.
He also argued that she had been uncooperative until she was offered immunity in the case.
Yet, Gardner also acknowledged — after being challenged by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo — that Peterson’s initial defense team had failed to thoroughly question Nice, who had answered on the jury questionnaire that she wouldn’t be able to solely stick to the evidence without her own pre-existing opinions influencing her decision.
Gardner said he thought the attorneys had likely thought the response had been an error.
“Was it a mistake?” Masullo had asked, according to the AP. “Isn’t that what lawyers are supposed to do?”
David Harris, of the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, disputed the defense’s theory that Nice had intentionally lied on the forms, saying she “did the best that she could” in filling out the 23-page form.
It had been the first time Nice, a single mom, had served on the jury, he said, contending that making a mistake on the form was not the same as intentionally lying.
"She’s inconsistent on her answers,” Harris said. “But being wrong does not necessarily make it false or make her a liar. It just might be that she’s really bad at filling out forms.”
He also disputed the idea that she had intentionally tried to get on the jury, saying that at one point a judge had been planning to dismiss Nice because she only got paid by her employer for two weeks of jury duty but defense attorney Mark Geragos had suggested she stay on if she wanted to.
“She’s trying to leave,” he said, per the AP. “This is not... 'I really want to be here because I’m gonna secretly get this guy.'”
Harris said there had also been a strong case against Peterson, referencing not only the location where the bodies were found, but the research he had done about the bay currents before her disappearance, and his haste to sell her car and look into selling the family’s home shortly after she disappeared.
Outside the courthouse Thursday, Peterson’s sister-in-law, Janey Peterson, said he was “hopeful” that he might get a new trial.
“This has been a very long road,” she said, according to The Modesto Bee. “This is actually just the very beginning of the appellate process, so we are very grateful that this day has finally come and these hearings are happening and we’re looking forward to him being granted a new trial.”
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