Websites set up by proponents of the death penalty accuse California of making one of the biggest flops in murder trial history. The story was supposed to go down as a near-slam dunk. The jury was all white. The man killed his pregnant wife and his two young sons. He was taking a plea deal. A renowned defense attorney helped with his defense. The guilty verdict was long anticipated. It was a perfect storm. But a whole new chapter in the Scott Peterson saga is about to begin. The San Mateo County district attorney has ordered that the case be re-examined because Peterson, now 42, is black. If Peterson’s case did not fully fit the rest of the state’s death-penalty statutes, it did at least make sense on its face.
“It did not do justice to an innocent man who has already paid the ultimate price,” District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. Peterson was convicted of double-murder charges in the drowning deaths of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their 2-year-old son, Conner, in 2002. On Feb. 26, 2004, he pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to the death penalty. Even with his guilty plea, he had never given any indication that he wanted to participate in any way in a trial. When will he get a new trial? That’s up to Judge Alfred J. Delucchi. Delucchi has already met with Wagstaffe several times, and they now plan to discuss the case again later this week.
Scott Peterson’s lawyers, Chris Darden and Mark Geragos, say that the new legal angle is an example of unfairness in the justice system. “We could say the state treated Scott differently,” Geragos said.
But Geragos and Darden acknowledge that the timing of the move is no coincidence. Wagstaffe filed the motion based on concern about the racial composition of the jury that convicted Peterson. The Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative Christian organization, created several websites on behalf of the former fertilizer salesman with the catchy tag line: “No Blacks In The Jurybox.” The sites claim Peterson was denied his constitutional right to have a race-blind jury. And in interviews with the group, the District Attorney said that the trial judge refused to allow Peterson’s race to be part of his defense strategy, allowing only that it was a “significant factor” in his life. Darden called the lack of a race-neutral defense strategy, though, “stunning.” “There is no question in my mind that that was deliberate,” he said.
But the assertion that race was not a central issue in the case is also disputed. After the case was originally presented to the jury, Darden was supposed to discuss the racial aspects of the case. But the information was not given to the jury by the lawyers or other jurors. They had to rely on a tape recording of the discussion for proof. The transcript provides the message: “What we really want to do, and what I tried to do during the trial and I never got an answer, is not get into the race part. The key is to get the jury to understand this and to understand the self-centeredness and the greed.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are not permitted to enter race into the jury pool during the selection process. A look at jury pool results from a variety of counties across California shows that most communities include racial minorities in their jury pools. After the Peterson trial, the court broadened the community-based jury pool to include all races.
The Peterson supporters on the websites are excited about the alleged exoneration of Peterson. “Seeing the majority of the community wanting to see Scott Peterson spend the rest of his life in jail and to not give him the death penalty is a big deal,” Nick Jehiel of the Pacific Justice Institute said.