Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Laci Peterson

The Peterson Trial

In his 2004 trial prosecutors accused Scott Peterson of killing his wife and then dumping her body, weighted with homemade concrete anchors, into San Francisco Bay.

Former Alameda County Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi presided over the case in San Mateo. He'd already tried 22 capital cases, six of which resulted in death sentences. Most notably, in 2000 he had sentenced carpet cleaner Giles Nadey to death for the assault and rape of a pastor's wife.

Rick Distaso
Rick Distaso
Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris was less experienced. He'd prosecuted only one death penalty case: In 2000 a jury convicted landlord George Souliotes, sentencing him to life for setting fire to a rental apartment to evict his tenants, whom the fire killed. His partner, Senior Deputy District Attorney Rick Distaso, was at work on two other capital cases during the Peterson trial.

Peterson chose Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Mark Geragos as his counsel. The celebrated lawyer has appeared on Larry King Live and defended Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder, Roger Clinton, Nate Dogg, Gary Condit, and Susan McDougal.

Prosecutors didn't have a murder weapon, cause of death, witness, or a definite motive. There was only one piece of DNA evidence: They'd found Laci Peterson's hair in the boat. Distaso said "common sense" made it obvious Scott Peterson was her killer. He had felt trapped by marriage and his impending family, and killed his wife to avoid alimony and child-support.

Scott Peterson
Scott Peterson
Geragos countered that a cheating husband wouldn't murder his wife to get her out of the way to pursue a relationship with a woman with whom he'd only been on a handful of dates. He contended Peterson had been set up by a homeless man or a burglar. He didn't explain how the homeless might have transported Laci 90 miles to where her body was found, but Geragos did show that another woman had been accosted by a "scruffy or homeless" man in a brown van shortly before Laci's disappearance, and another neighbor had seen a van matching this description near the Peterson house.

Geragos also attempted to prove that the baby had been born alive, and that, thus, Peterson wasn't responsible for the child's death. He claimed that doctors said the baby may have been born as much as month and a half after Laci Peterson vanished. His lead expert, however, performed poorly under cross-examination when the prosecution questioned this theory.

Geragos further claimed that Peterson couldn't have safely tipped his pregnant wife and a cement anchor out of the small boat on the rough open waters. He had a replica of the boat near the courthouse, until the court forced him to remove it.

None of these arguments convinced the jury.

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