Laci Peterson and her husband Scott seemed like a perfect young couple. They were successful, good-looking, and were expecting their first child. Everyone was surprised when the heavily-pregnant Laci suddenly disappeared just days before Christmas. Making it worse, her husband was pegged as the prime suspect. He has now been sitting behind bars for years after being charged with his own wife’s murder. New evidence that has come to light might turn the court’s verdict on its head. Read on to learn the latest updates in this gruesome case.
Scott and Laci Peterson
Scott Peterson and Laci Rocha met at the Pacific Café in Morro Bay, California, where Scott worked. They fell in love while being students at California Polytechnic State University. Scott majored in agricultural business and Laci majored in ornamental horticulture. They got engaged in December of 1996 and married on August 9, 1997. After a few years the couple decided to try and have kids. It turned out getting pregnant wasn’t easy, however she eventually conceived in May of 2002.
Laci Peterson disappeared at between 8:30pm on December 23, 2002, and 10:15am on December 24. Laci’s half-sister Amy was at the house on the evening of the 23rd and cut Scott’s hair. Later that the evening, Laci spoke with her mother Sharon on the phone. Nobody heard from her after that. The next morning, a neighbor found the Peterson’s family dog roaming around the neighborhood and returned her to the yard. Scott had been gone on a fishing trip during the day.
When Scott Peterson returned home on December 24, he discovered that Laci was not at home. Laci’s car was parked in the driveway and her purse and keys were still in the house. Reports claim that Scott washed his clothes, tidied up around the house, ate and took a shower when he got home. It wasn’t until 5:20 pm when he called his mother-in-law Sharon to ask if Laci was with her, which she was not. By 6 pm that day Laci’s mother called the police to report her missing.
Laci, who was eight-months pregnant, was missing. Scott said that Laci had planned to go to the grocery store to stock up for Christmas and take the dog for a walk at a nearby park. Everyone including friends and neighbors started looking for her. Over 900 people got involved in the search for Laci within the first two days of her disappearance. Police became more involved and employed the use of an official search crew.
Family and friends were devastated by Laci’s disappearance. Everyone wanted to find her alive and wanted to know who was responsible for her disappearance. Police investigated possible suspects, known criminals and neighborhood burglars, but no one fit.
Whispers were already swirling about the possibility that the husband Scott had been involved somehow. Statistically speaking, nearly half of all murdered women are killed by their romantic partners.
Police considered Scott Peterson a suspect in the case but they kept the information hidden from the public. Then something happened that turned the entire case upside-down. On January 17, 2003, evidence that Scott was having an affair surfaced. A picture of him with another woman was taken while he was on a supposed business trip was found.
In a shocking development, Scott’s mistresses came forward to tell her story and what she knew of Scott Peterson. Amber Frey was the woman in the photo. She told police that she had no idea that he was married with a pregnant wife. Amber said he told her that he had “lost his wife” and would be spending his first Christmas alone. This was 14 days before Laci’s disappearance.
Laci’s family was devastated by the news. Laci had never mentioned anything about an affair or any marital issues to her family. As the details came pouring out, it was revealed that Scott had multiple extramarital affairs. A relative of Scott’s actually described him as a sex addict. Laci’s family immediately withdrew their support of Scott. Later it was revealed that Laci knew about at least one of Scott’s affairs.
The Modesto police began working with Amber Frey in attempt to trick Scott Peterson into confessing. Amber agreed to let the police wiretap her phone. Over 300 phone conversations between Amber and Scott were recorded. Amber relentlessly asked about details of his missing wife, to which Scott replied that he didn’t do it and that for her protection couldn’t go into details. For a few weeks Scott even pretended to be in Europe. He described in detail being at a New Year’s Eve celebration at the Eiffel Tower and even faked phone interference to make his lie more believable. He later confessed that he had lied and apologized to Amber.
April 13, 2003, a couple walking their dog in the San Francisco bay area discovered a human fetus on the shoreline. The gruesome finding was located close to where Scott Peterson launched his boat on December 24th for a fishing trip. This was the same day that his eight-month pregnant wife disappeared. The fetus was male and still had all its limbs and organs. Experts estimated that the fetus was around 33 to 38 weeks old based on bone measurements. The biggest question was, could this be Laci’s baby?
After some lab tests, they found out that it was Laci’s unborn child . The very next day Laci’s body washed ashore not far from where Connor was found. She was wearing cream-colored maternity pants and a maternity bra. The body was severely mutilated. Both forearms were missing, the left leg from the knee down was missing and the body was decapitated. Due to the condition of the body, it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of death nor the time of death.
The news devastated Laci’s family who had been praying that their daughter and the baby were still alive. Forensic experts determined that Laci’s head and limbs were likely removed prior to her body being dumped. Reports indicated that Laci suffered multiple injuries, including two cracked ribs at or near the time of death. The most gruesome revelation was that all of Laci’s internal organs had been removed from her body, apart from the uterus.
Modesto police initially considered a few other possible suspects but all had strong alibis or zero motive. That left Scott as the sole prime suspect. Police had a few theories as to why he would murder Laci. Police proposed that he might have killed Laci for either the insurance money, not wanting to be a father, or the desire to date other women. Would he get a fair trial considering the massive waves of negative press already calling him a killer?
Just days after the bodies of Laci and Conner Peterson were found, police arrested Scott in the parking lot of a golf course where he had been golfing with his father and brother. It was very suspicious that Scott’s hair and newly-grown goatee had been dyed blond. His car was also stuffed with a number of strange items including around $15,000 in cash, several changes of clothes, four cell phones, camping equipment and survival gear.
Scott Peterson claimed that he had been living in his car to avoid media attention which had been stalking him. He was now the most hated person in Modesto, if not the entire country. Most people seemed convinced that he was the murderer even before being arrested. As for his changed appearance, Scott claimed that his hair had been bleached accidentally by pool chlorine.
Finding a Jury
By the time the trial came around, the story of Laci Peterson’s murder had dominated headlines for over a year. Finding someone who didn’t already know the story and didn’t already consider Scott guilty was near impossible. It took over nine weeks to select a jury for the case and nearly 1,600 candidates were considered as prospective jurors.
The trial was moved from Modesto because it was considered a hostile place toward Scott, to Redwood City, on the San Francisco peninsula. Not a person in the country hadn’t heard about the Scott Peterson case.
Very little evidence existed connecting Scott to the murder of Laci. Prosecution theorized that Scott killed Laci in their home then transported her to the marina in his truck on the night of the 23rd or morning of the 24th and proceeded to dump her body into the harbor. No physical evidence was ever presented to support this argument. Forensic teams found no blood, urine, or tissue of any kind in Scott’s truck, nor in his home. Police officers found a mop and bucket at Scott’s house which they believed he used to clean up the crime scene but there was no evidence that a murder had been committed.
The Prosecution argued that Scott transported Laci’s body in his boat, weighed down by four concrete anchors. He then dumped her body into the bay. The prosecution did not attempt to recreate the crime by attempting to dump a body or weights out of the boat. However, the defense did. The defense pushed a mannequin of Laci’s weight with four anchors attached to it out of the exact same boat as Scott’s. Experts determined that it was not possible to do this without the boat capsizing. The state objected to the evidence and the demonstration was excluded from court evidence.
The only physical evidence found was a fragment of hair matching Laci’s on a pair of pliers in the boat. Experts concluded that the fragment could have been transferred indirectly to the boat from Scott’s clothing, which Laci sometimes wore. The prosecution turned to circumstantial evidence and character profiling to prove that Scott Peterson murdered his wife.
With no direct evidence that the murder occurred at the Peterson residence and no evidence that Laci’s body had been transferred in Scott’s truck, the prosecution relied on dog scent evidence to fill the void for the body’s transfer to the marina. Two different tracking dogs were used to trail Laci’s scent using different items. One dog detected Laci’s scent at the Berkley marina and the other did not. The defense argued that the scent the first dog picked up could have easily been that of Scott Peterson due to cross-contamination.
The state prosecution attempted to establish the date and time of Laci’s death based on the fetal development of her unborn son. Based on two ultra-sound examinations, the expert estimated that Connor died on December 23, 2002. He also said that Connor may have died a day or two before or after the 23rd. The last main piece of circumstantial evidence was the movements of the water in the San Francisco Bay.
An expert witness charted how Connor’s body could have traveled through the water from the exact location where Scott had been fishing on the 24th, but could not produce such a chart for Laci’s body. The expert identified a “highly probable” location where Laci’s body could have been dumped. That same area was searched multiple times by search divers with sonar equipment in the weeks after Laci’s disappearance and found nothing.
Scott’s mistress, Amber Frey was called in as a main character witness in the case against Scott Peterson. Amber revealed that Scott had lied to her about almost every aspect of his life, including the fact that he was married. Her testimony was highly damaging to Scott as it painted him as a sex-crazed serial liar to the jury, especially since he continued the relationship even after his wife went missing.
Even before the trial started, the potential jurors were under extreme pressure for a guilty verdict. As the trial moved forward and the months went by, that pressure only grew. At least three jurors were dismissed during the trial proceedings, some due to misconduct and other for undisclosed reasons. A few of the jurors even received death threats saying that Scott must be found guilty or else.
Even though in criminal cases the state prosecutor isn’t required to establish a motive, they did. The prosecutor argued that Scott allegedly killed his wife for financial reasons. They argued that the family was in debt and he wanted to cash in on Laci’s life insurance policy. Second, Scott allegedly killed Laci because he didn’t want to be a father. Third, it was said that Scott allegedly killed Laci because he wanted to date other women, evident by his multiple affairs.
Mass Media Hysteria
The Scott Peterson trial was deemed the “trial of the decade” by the media. It received unprecedented coverage and Scott’s lawyer called it a “complete media lynching” of his client. According to his lawyer, the coverage of his client’s trial surpassed that of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Scott Peterson’s Verdict
On November 12, 2004, Scott Peterson was found guilty of murder. He was convicted of first degree murder for Laci’s death and second degree murder of their unborn son, Conner. The jury also recommended Scott receive the death penalty. The presiding judge agreed and sentenced Scott to death by lethal injection. A judge ruled that Laci’s $250,000 life insurance policy would go to her mother. Scott was shocked by his conviction and immediately moved to appeal the decision.
Crowds of people all around the country took to the streets celebrating the guilty verdict. In many ways the trial was treated in the media like a reality TV show, for viewing pleasure.
Sitting on Death Row
Scott Peterson was sent to San Quentin prison state prison, located around 10 miles from where the bodies of Laci and Conner were discovered in the San Francisco Bay. There are currently over 700 death row inmates in California. The last execution in the state was in 2006. Almost all of the inmates are likely to die of natural causes before the state gets around to executing them.
Scott Peterson ‘s trial, however, is far from over. He has one last option left: petitioning for habeas corpus (unlawful imprisonment) and getting a retrial.
Fame and Books
Laci’s mother Sharon wrote a book in 2006 called For Laci: A Mother’s Story of Love, Loss, and Justice. The book is a biography and memoir about Laci’s life and her tragic death. The proceeds of the book go to a search and rescue fund which Sharon founded. Scott’s once-time mistress Amber Frey subsequently wrote a book detailing her experience, angering Laci’s family.
Problems in the Trial
Scott Peterson’s new lawyer submitted an almost 300 page habeas corpus petition detailing evidence that wasn’t presented to the jury, mistakes made by his then lawyer, and issues with the circumstantial evidence presented against him. Scott’s main claim is that he was denied a fair trial due to the media portraying him as a cold-hearted monster and that there was never any hard evidence against him.
One of the most striking points in the case is that no physical or forensic evidence was ever presented that could link Scott Peterson to the murder of his wife. Only a singular hair fragment from Laci was found on a pair of pliers in Scott’s boat. There are no eyewitnesses in the case nor have there been any confessions to the murder. Despite his guilty verdict, it was definitely clear that things were wrong with the trial.
After Laci went missing dozens of people called into the Modesto Police Department claiming to have seen Laci on the morning of the 24th. Some reported seeing her after Scott had already left, which meant that Scott couldn’t have killed Laci. Police only followed up on three of the tips via phone call, stating that they just didn’t have the budget or manpower to follow up on such cases.
Another theory not originally mentioned in court was that Laci was murdered by a man robbing a house next door. According to an eyewitness, Laci witnessed a man named Steven Todd breaking into the house next door and Laci confronted him while on a walk with her dog. The location of Scott’s fishing trip was televised shortly after Laci’s disappearance, giving the real killer time to plant the body in the same area, framing Scott. Scott’s lawyer attempted to earn a retrial based on the new evidence but it was denied.