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Penalty Showdown in Peterson Trial

The jury deciding if the convicted murderer lives or dies can expect passion on both sides.

November 26, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Two weeks after convicting Scott Peterson of killing his pregnant wife and unborn son, the same jury will begin hearing arguments in Redwood City, Calif., on Tuesday on whether he should face death by lethal injection, or life in prison without parole.

The penalty phase is expected to last about four days and feature friends and relatives from both sides of the case spelling out their sense of loss and grief. Then the six-man, six-woman jury will resume sequestered deliberations.

If the jury calls for the death penalty for Peterson, the judge can sentence him to death or to life in prison. If the jury calls for life in prison, the judge must accept the recommendation.

Prosecutors are expected to open the penalty phase with tearful testimonies and video montages and end with blunt arguments to make jurors feel the anguish of the people Laci Peterson left behind.

Defense attorney Mark Geragos is in the peculiar position of trying to prevent Peterson, 32, from being sentenced to death when he has insisted throughout the five-month trial that his client didn't commit the crime.

Prosecutor Rick Distaso's presentation will call for Peterson's execution by portraying him as a monster who destroyed his own flesh and blood because they prevented him from living a playboy's life.

"This will be a highly emotional and dramatic presentation punctuated with memories of Laci Peterson by her relatives, and potentially even a video of her funeral," said criminal trial analyst Trent Copeland. "It also will be an extraordinarily powerful and impactful several days for these jurors."

Peterson was convicted Nov. 12 of first-degree murder in the death of Laci Peterson and second-degree murder in the death of her fetus, making him eligible for the death penalty.

So far, the cost of the trial, which was moved to Redwood City from Peterson's hometown of Modesto, has reached nearly $2.5 million, authorities said.

Because a court-imposed gag order remains in effect, it is hard to know exactly what arguments defense attorneys will make to the jury to spare Peterson's life.

The speculation is that Geragos will tell jurors that Peterson led a crime-free life and appeal to lingering doubts in a case built largely on circumstantial evidence.

He probably will call relatives and friends who will highlight their most loving episodes with Peterson, the son of an upper-middle-class San Diego family who was 30 when he killed his wife.

Complicating matters, however, Peterson's own attorney frequently referred to him as a liar, a philanderer and worse in his remarks to the jury.

"Clearly, Geragos had to denigrate his client in the minds of the jurors to justify his philandering," Copeland said. "Unfortunately, that same characterization is the last thing this jury needs to remember as they go forward with the penalty phase."

Prosecutors argued that Peterson strangled or smothered his 27-year-old wife and used a new 14-foot aluminum fishing boat to dump her body into San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002.

They also contended that a wealth of circumstantial evidence had shown that he began plotting to kill his wife shortly after starting an affair with a Fresno massage therapist.

The bodies of Laci and the fetus washed ashore in April 2003 near where her husband said he went fishing on the day she disappeared.

Whether Peterson takes the stand remains to be seen, although legal experts say it is highly unlikely.

"It's Peterson's decision, but there are many problems with him taking the witness stand," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

"If he did that, the prosecution would tear into him with a vengeance."

Besides, other trial experts said, juries typically resent convicted killers who do not own up to their crime or show remorse.

In recent days, Peterson, through his attorneys, has repeatedly tried and failed to delay the penalty phase.

The 1st District Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected his request for a new jury in another county.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Alfred A. Delucchi denied an earlier motion that argued that the vast publicity surrounding the case, coupled with an unusually high assumption of guilt, tilts the jury in favor of the prosecution.

In that motion, Geragos took particular exception to Delucchi's decision after the verdict was read to allow the jurors to leave the courtroom in full view of a cheering crowd.

"This court saw what happened, and I can only liken it to what happened in the '50s in the South when young black men were accused of raping white women," Geragos argued. "I thought it was something out of an old newsreel."

Even if handed the ultimate penalty, Peterson probably will die of natural causes before being executed, said Santa Clara Law School professor Gerald Uelman.

"We have 640 people on death row in California, and we've had 10 executions over the past 25 years," Uelman said.

In the meantime, Delucchi advised attorneys on both sides to prepare for heart-wrenching testimony from family and friends who until now have kept their feelings to themselves.

"I haven't heard what the evidence is in the penalty phase," Delucchi said. "But I know we'll have family members come in here and bare their souls, even break down on the witness stand."

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