MODESTO The appeal of Scott Peterson's murder conviction claims pretrial publicity and judicial errors helped convict him of killing his pregnant wife and unborn son.
Peterson's attorney formally appealed his death sentence late Thursday, more than seven years after he was found guilty. The filing is his first step toward leaving death row, his father said Friday. Laci Peterson's family said a strategy for speeding up the appeal process could backfire, putting the killer on a fast track to the death chamber.
Jurors were unduly swayed by massive publicity, Berkeley attorney Cliff Gardner said in the 470-page appeal, even though the 2004 trial was moved from Modesto to Redwood City, "only 90 miles away," the document reads.
"The case against Mr. Peterson was anything but overwhelming," Gardner argued. "There were no eyewitnesses, no confessions, no admissions and scant physical evidence connected him to the crime."
Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when she disappeared Christmas Eve 2002 from her Modesto home. Her husband said he'd been fishing in a newly purchased boat in San Francisco Bay and returned to an empty house.
The badly decomposed bodies of mother and fetus washed ashore nearly four months later, and he was tried and convicted in a trial stretching over most of 2004, arriving on death row in March 2005.
"This (appeal) is a first step toward getting an innocent man out of San Quentin," his father, Lee, said on the telephone Friday, citing an "astounding lack of evidence."
Although it's been several years, the Peterson appeal is considered fast relative to other California death penalty cases, which are automatically appealed and typically languish more than a decade. His family hired Gardner, an attorney specializing in California Supreme Court work, in hopes of freeing Peterson soon.
Ron Grantski, longtime companion of Laci Peterson's mother, said: "I think he's crazy. Let him go ahead. Once the appeal's met, he's pretty much on the starting line for death, that's the way I look at it."
The appeal pays little attention to Peterson's celebrity defense attorney, Mark Geragos, claiming missteps by Judge Alfred Delucci, who died of cancer in 2008.
For example, Delucci improperly excused all prospective jurors who professed misgivings about the death penalty, Gardner said. The standard should have allowed jurors who were willing to overlook their own views to impose capital punishment in some cases, he said.
Pervasive publicity made it impossible to seat fair jurors even in the Bay Area, Gardner argues in the appeal. "Before hearing even a single witness, nearly half of all prospective jurors admitted they had already decided Mr. Peterson was guilty of capital murder," Gardner argued.
Gardner questioned why prosecutors were allowed to introduce "highly prejudicial dog scent evidence" and an expert in movement of bodies in water, while the defense was barred from showing a video casting doubt on the theory that a weighted body could be tossed without capsizing the boat.