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Peterson's Murder Trial to Start Today

After a lengthy jury-selection process, arguments to begin in the case of the Modesto man accused of killing his wife and unborn son.

June 01, 2004|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

Opening arguments in the murder trial of Scott Peterson, the fertilizer salesman accused of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, are set to begin today in San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City.

Prosecutors allege that Peterson, 31, killed his wife on Dec. 24, 2002, and dumped her body into the San Francisco Bay. Peterson has pleaded not guilty.

The case, which has generated international attention, was originally slated to be held in Modesto, Peterson's hometown, but was moved to Redwood City because of the extensive publicity. If convicted, Peterson faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that Peterson murdered his wife so he could pursue a relationship with a Fresno massage therapist. Legal experts say the case will be difficult to prove because much of the evidence made public so far is circumstantial.

"I haven't seen the evidence yet that makes it a slam-dunk case," said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

"They made a lot out of a hair [belonging to Laci] found on the boat [used by Peterson on his fishing trip], but there's so many ways hair could go places," she said. "I don't think that could be the smoking gun."

However, Levenson said most evidence in murder trials is circumstantial.

"It's a question of how many pieces of the puzzle the prosecution has and how important those pieces are," she said.

The makeup of San Mateo County juries in recent years also may work in favor of the defense and against the death penalty.

Although the county has historically been known as a conservative, pro-prosecution area, that trend began changing 10 years ago, said Jim Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney for the county.

Of 21 death penalty cases tried in San Mateo County between 1983 and 1993, prosecutors won death verdicts in 18, he said.

But since 1994, they've been unable to win death penalty verdicts in the three cases brought to trial, he said. In two of those cases, the defendants were given life, while the jury was not able to reach a verdict in the third.

"I've noticed a big change in jurors in terms of their attitudes toward the death penalty," said Wagstaffe, who is seeking the death penalty against a robber who pleaded guilty to killing a bank manager.

Meanwhile, legal experts say it also will be a challenge for the defense to win Peterson's acquittal in a case that has garnered such attention.

"People are very angry about what happened," Levenson said.

When the news came out that Laci was missing, many spent their Christmas holiday looking for her, she recalled.

"Everyone feels they have a stake in what happened," Levenson said.

Harland Braun, a noted defense attorney in Los Angeles, said the burden is really on the defense -- not the prosecution -- to prove a client's innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I don't think juries follow the reasonable-doubt instruction" from the judge, he said.

Because the bodies surfaced near where Peterson said he went fishing, Braun said it almost requires the defense to come up with an alternative theory.

"That's a pretty hard thing to explain," he said.

But James Giller, an Oakland criminal defense attorney who has tried 13 death penalty cases and heads Alameda County's court-appointed attorneys program, said there's a strong factor in the defense's favor: Juries are required by law to side with the defendant if there are two reasonable interpretations of the evidence.

During the lengthy jury-selection process that ended Thursday, Peterson's attorney, Mark Geragos, repeatedly tried to make that point while questioning potential jurors.

The trial is estimated to last six months -- five months to determine Peterson's guilt, and, if convicted, another month to decide whether he'll get life in prison or the death penalty.

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