People v. Peterson

Decision Date24 August 2020
Docket NumberS132449
Citation10 Cal.5th 409,472 P.3d 382,268 Cal.Rptr.3d 56
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Scott Lee PETERSON, Defendant and Appellant.

Cliff Gardner, under appointment by the Supreme Court; Catherine White and Lazuli Whitt for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler and Ronald S. Matthias, Assistant Attorneys General, Glenn R. Pruden and Donna M. Provenzano, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Kruger, J.

A jury convicted defendant Scott Lee Peterson of one count of first degree murder for killing his wife, Laci Peterson, and one count of second degree murder for killing their unborn son. It found true the special circumstance that Peterson had committed multiple murders. At the penalty phase, the jury returned a verdict of death. This appeal is automatic. ( Pen. Code, § 1239, subd. (b).)

Peterson contends his trial was flawed for multiple reasons, beginning with the unusual amount of pretrial publicity that surrounded the case. We reject Peterson's claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder. But before the trial began, the trial court made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson's right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase. While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror's views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter. (See Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968) 391 U.S. 510, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776 ; Wainwright v. Witt (1985) 469 U.S. 412, 105 S.Ct. 844, 83 L.Ed.2d 841.) Here, the trial court erroneously dismissed many prospective jurors because of written questionnaire responses expressing opposition to the death penalty, even though the jurors gave no indication that their views would prevent them from following the law — and, indeed, specifically attested in their questionnaire responses that they would have no such difficulty. Under United States Supreme Court precedent, these errors require us to reverse the death sentence in this case. ( Gray v. Mississippi (1987) 481 U.S. 648, 107 S.Ct. 2045, 95 L.Ed.2d 622 ; see People v. Riccardi (2012) 54 Cal.4th 758, 778, 144 Cal.Rptr.3d 84, 281 P.3d 1.) On remand, the People may retry the penalty phase if they so choose.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. Guilt Phase Trial
1. Prosecution Evidence

Peterson and Laci Rocha met in San Luis Obispo, where Laci was attending college and Peterson was working in a restaurant. They married in 1997. They opened and ran a restaurant together in San Luis Obispo. In 2000, they moved to Modesto and bought a house. Laci took a job as a substitute teacher, while Peterson ran a start-up fertilizer company named TradeCorp U.S.A. out of a leased warehouse. Some years after the two married, Laci became pregnant; the baby — whom the couple had named Conner — was due in February 2003.1

On December 23, 2002, Laci went grocery shopping around midday. She also had a prenatal medical checkup. In the late afternoon, both Laci and Peterson went to a salon where Laci's sister, Amy Rocha, worked. Amy mentioned that she had ordered a gift basket for a family member that needed to be picked up the next day by 3:00 p.m. Peterson volunteered to get it for her, as he was going to be golfing nearby. Peterson also invited Amy to dinner, but she declined because she had prior plans. That night, Laci and her mother, Sharon, spoke on the phone and confirmed that Laci and Peterson would join Sharon and Sharon's longtime partner, Ron Grantski, for dinner the following night, Christmas Eve.

At 10:18 the following morning, a neighbor, Karen Servas, saw the Petersons' dog, McKenzie, wandering unaccompanied on the street, wearing his leash. Peterson's truck was gone; Laci's car was still in their driveway.

There were no signs of activity at the house, so Servas put McKenzie in the Petersons' backyard and closed the gate. That afternoon, Grantski tried to reach Laci, without success. Around 3:45 p.m., Amy received a call that her gift basket had not been picked up. She was unable to reach Peterson. Neighbors reported Peterson's truck still absent at 4:05 p.m., but back by 5:30 p.m.

At around 5:15 p.m., Peterson called Sharon and asked if Laci was there. He described Laci as "missing." Sharon suggested he check with friends and neighbors. Peterson called Sharon back shortly afterwards and reported the people he had spoken to had not seen Laci either. Sharon told Grantski to call the police. Officers soon met Peterson, Sharon, and Grantski at a nearby park. Neighbors and other relatives gathered at the park as well. Grantski spoke with Peterson and asked if he had gone golfing that day. Peterson said he had changed his mind and gone fishing instead. Told what time Peterson had gone, Grantski suggested it was an unusually late time to be fishing. Peterson walked off without responding. Peterson told a cousin of Sharon's and two neighbors that he had been golfing all day. He volunteered to Sandy Rickard, a friend of Sharon's, that he would not be surprised if the police found blood in his truck because he cut his hands all the time.

Police inspected the Peterson home. There were no signs of forced entry, nothing appeared missing, and Laci's purse was still there. Peterson told officers he and Laci had watched television that morning, and Laci had planned to walk the dog and go grocery shopping. Peterson decided to go fishing in the San Francisco Bay. He went to his company warehouse where he stored a boat, drove to the Berkeley Marina, fished for two hours, and quit because the day was cold and rainy. He tried calling Laci on the home phone and her cell phone but did not reach her. Peterson got home around 4:30 p.m. He washed his clothes, ate some pizza, and then called Sharon to track down Laci.

Officer Matthew Spurlock asked what time Peterson was fishing. He also asked what Peterson was fishing for and what lure he used. According to Spurlock and Officer Derrick Letsinger, Peterson gave slow and initially noncommittal answers. He "really didn't give a responsive time" and, when asked what he was fishing for, paused, gave a blank look, and "mumbled some stuff" without really answering. Peterson likewise responded with a blank look when asked about his lure, but after some delay came up with a size and color description.

Detective Allen Brocchini was called to the Peterson home. He found wet towels on top of the washing machine. Peterson explained that he had taken them out so that he could wash the clothes he had worn that day. Inside the washing machine were Peterson's jeans, shirt, and green pullover jacket. In the bedroom, officers observed a laundry hamper nearly full of clothes. With consent, Detective Brocchini examined Peterson's truck and saw large patio umbrellas and a tarp in the truck bed. Inside the truck cab, he found a fishing rod and a bag containing a package of unused fishing lures and a receipt indicating the items had all been purchased on December 20. Peterson handed him a Berkeley Marina parking receipt that indicated Peterson had entered at 12:54 p.m. On the backseat was a camouflage jacket Peterson said he had worn fishing that day. Brocchini and Peterson then went to Peterson's warehouse. There, Brocchini observed what he described as a "homemade anchor" made of concrete in Peterson's boat, but no long rope to attach it to the boat.

Peterson agreed to a further interview at the Modesto police station. Peterson repeated that Laci had planned to walk the dog and go grocery shopping. For his part, Peterson decided to go fishing because it was too cold to golf. He went to his warehouse, then to the Berkeley Marina around 1:00 p.m., and fished for 90 minutes near an area that was later identified as Brooks Island.2 Peterson did not pack a lunch or stop to eat on the way to or from the marina. On the way back, Peterson called Laci on their home phone and left two messages on her cell phone.3 He dropped off his boat at the warehouse and went home. Peterson told officers that there were no problems in his marriage.

Peterson had a followup interview with Detective Craig Grogan and an investigator from the state's Department of Justice on Christmas Day, December 25. Peterson explained that he had never fished on the San Francisco Bay before but wanted to test out his boat. He troll fished4 for an hour on the way out to Brooks Island from the marina dock. Peterson suggested Laci might have been robbed of her jewelry by a transient and then kidnapped. He denied being involved in an affair with anyone. Later that day, Peterson called Detective Brocchini to check on the investigation. He asked if the police would be using cadaver dogs5 to search for Laci. Brocchini explained that they would not, because no one assumed Laci was dead.

In the days after Christmas, the Modesto Police Department executed search warrants on the Peterson home and Peterson's warehouse. Police confirmed that there had been no forced entry at the house. None of Laci's jewelry was missing, other than one pair of diamond earrings. Traces of Peterson's blood were found on a comforter in the master bedroom. In sheds in the backyard, police found the cover to Peterson's boat, smelling heavily of gasoline,6 as well as a blue tarp. The boat cover had chunks of concrete in it. In Peterson's truck, police found additional spots of Peterson's blood. Peterson explained that he had cut his hand on the truck door. Police found small chunks of cement and a claw hammer with cement powder on it in the truck's bed.

At the warehouse, the police inspected the boat and found a pair...

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