On August 24, 2020, the California Supreme Court issued its ruling overturning the death penalty in the Scott Peterson case. The guilty conviction still stands. Justice Leondra Kruger wrote the ruling overturning the death penalty in the case and remanding the case to the lower court for retrial on the sole issue of the penalty to be imposed. The court was unanimous in its decision.
The Scott Peterson Case
Laci Peterson was 8 months pregnant when she disappeared from the family home in Modesto in late December 2002. The case garnered national attention. The bodies of Laci and their unborn son, Conner were discovered months later after washing up on Shore near the Berkeley marina.
Eventually Scott Peterson was tried in San Mateo County for his wife’s murder and the murder of their son, Connor. He was found guilty of first-degree murder for his wife’s death and of second-degree murder for Conner’s death. Peterson was found guilty of murder with special circumstances. The court denied a motion for a new trial, denied the automatic motion for modification of the verdict. The court sentenced Peterson to death.
An appeal was filed based arguing that the trial was flawed. The case had received a huge amount of pre-trial publicity. This necessitated a change in venue from Modesto to San Mateo. Even then, Petersen argued that the pre-trial publicity prevented him from receiving a fair trial. The California Supreme Court rejected Peterson’s arguments that his trial was unfair regarding his guilty verdict. Thus, the guilty verdict stands.
Peterson’s Argument Regarding Lack of an Impartial Jury
Peterson’s second argument was that error in the jury selection resulted in an unfair result in the penalty phase of the trial. The Court found clear and significant errors in jury selection and thus overturned the death penalty imposed.
At trial, potential jurors were given an extensive questionnaire to fill out. This is common practice in trial practice as it provides both sides with information from which to determine biases. Normally, these questionnaires lead to further questioning of a potential juror. This is known as voir dire.
The questionnaire in the Peterson case had several questions regarding the potential juror’s feelings about the death penalty and their willingness or unwillingness to impose the death penalty. During jury selection, multiple prospective jurors were excused by the judge solely based on written questionnaire responses indicating they were personally opposed to the death penalty.
Peterson argued that, absent any indication these jurors would be unable to apply the law faithfully and impartially, it was error to remove them from the juror pool. The Supreme Court agreed.
Citing long-standing precedent, the Court stated that a potential juror in a capital case may not be excused for cause by the court solely because the juror opposes the death penalty. A juror’s opposition to the death penalty must prevent the juror from following the law. In a capital case, prospective jurors are subject to excusal if the juror is unable or unwilling to impose the death penalty if the defendant is found guilty.
Voir dire would normally be used to flesh out a potential juror’s biases. In this case, with a pool of 1500 potential jurors, voir dire was not used. The trial judge summarily excused for cause.
As Justice Kruger states in the Court’s opinion, even one such dismissal would be enough to automatically reverse a resulting death penalty. In the Peterson case, there were multiple instances of this type of dismissal.
As the Court concluded, A potential juror’s eligibility to serve in a capital case is grounded in that person’s willingness and ability to follow the court’s instructions and to consider the appropriate penalty in light of the evidence presented by each side. This is the heart of the guarantee of an impartial jury in a capital case. Peterson was denied an impartial jury at trial.
The case will be remanded on the sole issue of the death penalty. California may decide to retry the issue, or it may let it stand. Alternatively, either Peterson or the State may appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Peterson is the 38th inmate on California’s death row to see his sentence reversed since 1998. Although California currently has a moratorium on the death penalty, that could change if a new pro-death penalty governor comes into office.