It’s a cornerstone of the American legal system and a virtual literary trope that people are presumed innocent until being proven guilty, but it sure was easy to assume the worst about fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson after his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner, mysteriously disappeared in late 2002.
After all, here was a man who told his mistress that his then-pregnant wife was already deceased; provided conflicting information about what he was doing the day she was reported missing; was spotting laughing at Laci’s candlelight vigil; and sold off her car in the weeks before her lifeless body was discovered. It was hardly the behavior of a devoted family man, and the public’s suspicions were confirmed when a jury found Peterson guilty of double homicide in November 2004.
But the court of public opinion only goes so far amid the extensive layers of the legal system, and Peterson’s appeals eventually earned a closer look as he waited out the years on death row, setting up the once-unthinkable possibility he would get another shot at freedom.
December 24, 2002: Laci is reported missing
Scott tells police that he had last seen Laci, nearly eight months pregnant with their baby, at their Modesto, California, home around 9:30 that morning before leaving to go fishing, sparking a massive manhunt comprised of both regional and federal authorities and volunteer search teams. Scott quickly draws the scrutiny of investigators, who note his seeming lack of concern over his wife’s disappearance and his refusal to take a polygraph test.
January 24, 2003: Amber Frey reveals her relationship with Scott
Amber Frey, a massage therapist, tells reporters that she began dating Scott two months earlier, unaware that he was married, and that she contacted police on December 30 after realizing the connection between her boyfriend and the missing woman in the headlines.
March 5, 2003: Laci’s case is reclassified as a homicide
Authorities offer no reason for the switch from a missing-person investigation, other than a statement that notes they had “increasingly come to believe that Laci is the victim of a violent crime.”
April 13-14, 2003: The remains of a woman and fetus are found
One day after the body of a fetus is discovered on the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay, the decomposing body of a woman is found nearby, approximately two to three miles north of the Berkeley Marina where Scott said he went fishing the previous Christmas Eve.
April 18, 2003: Scott is arrested and the bodies are identified as Laci and Conner
Peterson is apprehended in La Jolla, California, near both the San Diego home of his mother and the Mexican border. Along with sporting a dyed-blond hairdo and goatee, he is driving a car containing approximately $15,000 in cash, his brother’s ID card and multiple cell phones. Later that day, it is confirmed that the recently found bodies are those of Laci and Conner.
April 21, 2003: Scott pleads not guilty
In a brief arraignment at Stanislaus County Superior Court, Peterson pleads not guilty to two counts of capital murder. He also says he cannot afford a lawyer and is appointed a public defender.
May 2, 2003: Celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos joins Scott’s team
Geragos, who counted actors Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. among his clientele and had recently been providing cable TV analysis of the Peterson case, announces that he has been hired by the defendant’s family.
November 18, 2003: Scott is ordered to stand trial
Following 11 days of testimony from investigators, family members and neighbors in a preliminary hearing, Judge Aldo Girolami determines that prosecutors had shown probable cause and orders Scott to stand trial for the double homicide charges.
December 19, 2003: Laci’s mom files wrongful death claims
Laci’s mom, Sharon Rocha, files suits as both an individual and the administrator of her daughter’s estate, seeking more than $5 million in damages. “She wants to make sure justice is done whether it’s in a civil court or a criminal court,” her lawyer says.
January 20, 2004: The trial is moved to San Mateo County
Conceding that overwhelming publicity and hostility had squashed the possibility of a fair trial in Peterson’s hometown, Judge Girolami announces that proceedings will be transferred 90 miles away to San Mateo County.
June 1, 2004: Scott’s trial begins
The trial commences with the prosecution’s opening statement, which asserts that Scott sought a responsibility-free life by killing his wife and soon-to-be-born son and dumping her weighted body in the bay. The following day, Geragos contends that his client’s “boorish” behavior is hardly proof of murder, and offers a preview of the medical evidence that points to the baby being born after Laci’s reported disappearance.
June 23, 2004: A juror is removed
Two days after juror Justin Falconer is spotted speaking to Laci’s brother outside the courtroom, Judge Alfred Delucchi dismisses the juror. He also shoots down the defense’s request for a mistrial due to unfavorable news reports, noting, “We have to live with the media.”
August 10, 2004: Frey delivers her crucial testimony
Taking the stand for the first of her seven days of testimony, Frey, represented by celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, recalls the details of her fairytale first date with Scott. She goes on to relate his claims of being a widower and numerous other lies, her accounts bolstered by the 12 hours of recorded phone calls played for the jury. Legal analysts later pinpoint this testimony as a huge momentum-shifter for the prosecution, to that point sputtering through a lack of firm evidence and its mishandling of procedural matters.
October 21, 2004: The defense’s medical expert fumbles on the stand
Following through on his opening promise, Geragos calls on a medical expert who testifies that Conner died no earlier than December 29, 2002, indicating that Laci was still alive after being reported missing. But the appearance ends badly for the witness, who concedes that he relied on hearsay to pinpoint the date of a pregnancy test, and at one point asks the cross-examining prosecutor to “cut me some slack.”
November 3, 2004: Jury deliberations begin… and turn bumpy
After five months and more than 180 witnesses called to the stand, the jury is left to determine the fate of Scott.
On November 9, juror Fran Gorman is dismissed for misconduct – later revealed to be for conducting separate research – and is replaced by alternate Richelle Nice, whose name would resurface in appeals down the road. The following day, foreman Gregory Jackson is also removed, reportedly at his own request after repeated clashes with his fellow jurors.
November 12, 2004: Scott is found guilty
Despite the absence of a murder weapon or any physical evidence tying Scott to the deceased, he is found guilty of first-degree murder for the death of Laci and second-degree murder for the death of Conner. The announcement sparks audible gasps in the courtroom, along with a roar of celebration from the crowd gathered outside.
December 13, 2004: The jury recommends a death sentence
Following 11 hours of deliberations, the clerk announces to a quiet courtroom that the six-man, six-woman jury had unanimously voted to “fix the penalty at death.”
March 16: 2005: The judge sentences Scott to death
Judge Delucchi sentences Scott to death by lethal injection, but his announcement is overshadowed by the emotion that erupts when Laci’s family is given the opportunity to speak, with parents from both sides yelling and Laci’s brother telling the convicted that he’d strongly considered shooting him. Scott, who sits stoically through the charged affair, declines to deliver a statement before being shipped off to San Quentin State Prison.
April 2009: Laci’s family foregoes the civil suit
Shortly before a scheduled hearing on April 30, 2009, it is announced that Sharon and Dennis Rocha had dropped the wrongful death claim against their former son-in-law.
July 5, 2012: Scott files an appeal
In a 423-page document submitted to the California Supreme Court, Scott’s lawyer revives the complaint that intensive publicity had eroded the possibility of his client receiving a fair trial. He also claims that Judge Delucchi had erred by excluding prospective jurors who opposed the death penalty but said they would consider imposing such a sentence, and that certain evidence, such as the findings of a police dog with a poor track record of success, should never have been admitted as evidence.
November 24, 2015: Scott files a second appeal
The habeas corpus petition covers much of the same ground as Scott’s previous appeal, with one glaring difference: It includes the revelation that Nice, one of the late-trial replacements, had lied about an earlier involvement in legal proceedings by failing to disclose that she had once been threatened by her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend while pregnant.
August 24, 2020: Scott’s death sentence is overturned
Agreeing with Scott’s argument that prospective jurors were improperly dismissed for their opposition to the death penalty but a willingness to adhere to it, the California Supreme Court overturns Scott’s death sentence. However, the court rejects the stance that he was unable to receive a fair trial and upholds the murder conviction.
October 14, 2020: Scott’s convictions are ordered reexamined
Focusing on the “prejudicial misconduct” of Nice’s failure to disclose her previous legal entanglements, the California Supreme Court announces that the case will be sent back to San Mateo County Superior Court to determine whether a new trial is needed.
October 23, 2020: Prosecutors announce plans to pursue the same course of action
A Stanislaus County spokesman says that Assistant District Attorney Dave Harris intends to seek the death penalty for Scott again. Meanwhile, Peterson lawyer Pat Harris, who worked alongside Geragos in the original trial, tells reporters that “an innocent man’s been sitting in jail for 15 years, it’s time to get him out.”
November 6, 2020: Scott declines a speedy trial
Appearing in a San Mateo Superior Court hearing via Zoom, Scott waives the right to speedy trial of the penalty phase of his case, setting the stage for a new chapter in his long-running legal saga.