Nearly 17 years after being sentenced to die, Scott Peterson will be resentenced Wednesday to life in prison in the 2002 slayings of his pregnant wife and unborn son that gripped the world then and since.
The California Supreme Court ruled a year ago that his jury was improperly screened for bias against the death penalty. Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, who came to fame as one of three prosecutors in Peterson’s trial, opted this time to settle for life without parole.
Wednesday’s hearing is expected to be brief but could be emotional, with statements from some family members of 27-year-old Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant when she was killed carrying the boy the couple planned to name Connor.
“You are going to burn in hell for this,” Laci’s father, Dennis Rocha, who died in 2018, yelled at Peterson during his first sentencing. “Your life is done.”
Up to 16 of her family and friends are to be seated in the jury box, and up to 16 of his supporters elsewhere in the courtroom.
Prosecutors say they expect either written or spoken statements from Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha, and her brother and sister, Brent Rocha and Amy Rocha.
Defense attorney Pat Harris said Tuesday that Peterson is prepared to speak if the judge allows it, something Peterson didn’t do during his initial trial and sentencing.
“This would be the first (time) that he speaks substantively about the case,” said Harris, who also participated in the original trial. He expects Peterson’s supporters to also be in the courtroom to show their support, but they are not allowed to speak.
Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo, who will resentence Peterson, is separately considering if Peterson was prejudiced by juror misconduct.
But she opted to resentence Peterson first, over the objections of his lawyers, to resolve a problem with his status.
He has been in San Quentin State Prison, home to California’s death row, since he was condemned to death in March 2005. That followed his conviction in November 2004 during a trial that was moved 90 miles (145 kilometers) to San Mateo County because of worldwide publicity.
But Massullo said he couldn’t stay on death row once prosecutors said they would not again seek his execution. He has since been moved to the county jail for resentencing and is expected to remain there until Massullo decides on whether he should get a new trial.
She plans about a weeklong hearing from Feb. 25 through March 4 to hear defense claims that the woman known as Juror 7 falsely answered questions during the selection process.
They say she actively sought to join the jury and later co-authored a book on the case. Richelle Nice has not been named in court papers but co-authored the book with six other jurors.
Defense lawyers contend she was biased because she had been a crime victim, which she did not disclose during jury selection. They learned only later that she had been beaten by a boyfriend in 2001 while she was pregnant. She obtained a restraining order during another pregnancy against a boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend because she was fearful the woman would harm her unborn child.
Nice said in a court filing that she didn’t think the restraining order was a lawsuit that she had to disclose on her jury form, nor did she “feel ‘victimized’ the way the law might define that term.”
Massullo will have 90 days after next year’s hearing to decide if Peterson should get a new trial.
Prosecutors say Peterson took his wife’s body from their Modesto home on Christmas Eve 2002 and dumped her from his fishing boat into the San Francisco Bay, where they washed ashore in April 2003.
Defense attorneys say new evidence points to nearby burglars, though investigators say they were ruled out as suspects.
Supreme Court justices said in their August 2020 decision overturning his death sentence that there was considerable circumstantial evidence incriminating Peterson in the first-degree murder of Laci and the second-degree murder of Connor.
It included that the bodies washed ashore near where Peterson admitted he was fishing on the day they disappeared. He had researched ocean currents, bought a boat without telling anyone, and couldn’t explain what type of fish he was trying to catch that day.
Also, in the weeks after Laci disappeared but before the bodies washed ashore, he sold his wife’s car, looked into selling their house, and turned the baby nursery into a storage room.
Peterson was eventually arrested after Amber Frey, a massage therapist living in Fresno, told police that they had begun dating a month before his wife’s death, but that he had told her his wife was dead.