A man who killed his pregnant wife 18 years ago has had his death sentence reversed by California’s Supreme Court.
Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering Laci Peterson, 27, on Christmas Eve in 2002. She was eight months pregnant with their unborn son, Connor.
He dumped their bodies from his fishing boat into San Francisco Bay, where they surfaced months later.
Peterson, who is now 47, was sentenced to death by lethal injection and is currently held in San Quentin State Prison in San Francisco.
On Monday, the California Supreme Court upheld his 2004 conviction but overturned the 2005 death sentence, and said prosecutors may try again for the same sentence if they wish.
“Peterson contends his trial was flawed for multiple reasons, beginning with the unusual amount of pretrial publicity that surrounded the case,” the court said.
“We reject Peterson’s claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder.”
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But the court added that the trial judge “made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection” that undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase.
It agreed with his argument that potential jurors were improperly dismissed from the jury pool after saying they personally disagreed with the death penalty, but would be willing to follow the law and impose it.
“A juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” the court concluded.
Peterson’s argument that he could not get a fair trial because of the widespread publicity that followed was rejected by the court.
Following the court’s decision, Peterson’s appellate lawyer Cliff Gardner said: “We are grateful for the California Supreme Court’s unanimous recognition that if the state wishes to put someone to death, it must proceed to trial only with a fairly selected jury.”
Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his wife and the second-degree murder of their unborn son.
He was eventually arrested after a massage therapist named Amber Fray told police she had begun dating Peterson a month before his wife’s death, but he had told her his wife was dead.
Peterson’s trial lawyer, Mark Geragos, said he objected at the time to what he said was “clear error” in jury selection.
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Mr Geragos believes prosecutors will not retry the penalty phase.
He said: “Frankly, I think the only reason that they sought the death penalty was to get a guilt-prone jury panel”.
Mr Geragos said he expects Peterson will eventually be exonerated. “We’re halfway there,” he said.
California has not executed anyone since 2006 due to legal challenges in the way it would carry out the death penalty.
Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom also has a moratorium on executions for as long as he is governor.