SAN FRANCISCO - Laci Peterson's 2002 disappearance from her Modesto, Calif., home on Christmas Eve made instant headlines. Her family initially said that Scott, her husband, was beyond suspicion. Then a woman surfaced who said she was having an affair with him. Finally, Laci's remains and her 8-month-old fetus washed up on a rocky shore near where Scott said he had gone fishing on Christmas Eve.
Eighteen years later, Peterson's death sentence for killing his pregnant wife and unborn son has been overturned, and his convictions are under scrutiny. Alleged juror misconduct has sent the case back to San Mateo County Superior Court, where the fertilizer salesman was found guilty and sentenced to death after a 2004 trial.
"It's basically a second chance for Peterson," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now leads a project at the school to try to free the wrongly convicted.
The unraveling of such a high-profile murder case stems from legal errors made by the trial judge and a woman who allegedly lied to get picked for the jury and became obsessed with the death of the fetus, whom Laci and Scott were going to name Conner.
The California Supreme Court on Wednesday issued an order requiring a San Mateo County judge to examine whether the juror committed misconduct, and if so, whether the guilty verdicts should be overturned. A full-blown hearing with witnesses is possible. If the evidence clearly shows misconduct, prosecutors will have to show the juror's actions were irrelevant to the case to prevail.
Whatever the judge decides can be appealed, and the process could take months if not years. If the defense succeeds in overturning the convictions, Peterson most likely would be retried.
The order issued by the state's highest court is called "an order to show cause." It asks the trial court to determine whether Peterson should be granted a new trial on the grounds that "Juror No. 7 committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings, including but not limited to being the victim of a crime."
The California Supreme Court rarely issues such orders and usually limits them to sentences, not verdicts, said Scott Kauffman, a criminal defense appellate lawyer. In any case, Kauffman said, the prosecution ultimately prevails most of the time.
"When you are in habeas you are already dead and buried," Kauffman said. "If you get an order to show cause, you're closer to the surface but you are not there. You have to prove your claims in a hostile environment against a usually hostile judge."
But the defense can prevail. Cliff Gardner, Peterson's defense lawyer, said he has had two capital cases in which such orders led to the overturning of sentences.
"I am very confident that we can win it," Gardner said Thursday. "Whether we do or not, there are a lot of things that go into that calculus."
The California Supreme Court's actions, he said, "reflect the importance of jury selection in a case."
John Goold, a spokesman for the Stanislaus County district attorney's office, which prosecuted Peterson, downplayed the significance of Wednesday's order.
"This is one step in a very long and complicated appellate process," Goold said.
The California Supreme Court had little choice but to overturn Peterson's death sentence this year. The late Judge Alfred Delucchi, who presided over the trial, discharged prospective jurors who expressed opposition to capital punishment but said they would be willing to impose it. Delucchi's actions flouted U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
"Jurors may not be excused merely for opposition to the death penalty, but only for views rendering them unable to fairly consider imposing that penalty in accordance with their oath," Justice Leondra R. Kruger wrote for a unanimous California Supreme Court.
The court expressed bewilderment about Delucchi's actions. He had experience in criminal law and should have known better, the court said.
The Aug. 24 decision left intact the guilty verdicts.
But Peterson's lawyers also challenged the convictions in a separate habeas corpus petition, which examines evidence the court did not hear.
Most legal documents are dry and soporific, but Peterson's 277-page habeas was gripping. It raised evidence suggesting Peterson was innocent and alleged that his trial lawyer, Mark Geragos, had failed his client by neglecting to read a document that could have been used to challenge a prosecution witness.
The court, however, rejected all claims but one: that Richelle Nice, Juror No. 7, lied to get picked for the jury.
Initially seated as an alternate, Nice replaced a discharged juror during deliberations. She later co-wrote a book about the case with several other jurors.
Peterson's lawyers argued that Nice worked hard to get on the jury. Even though her employer would pay for only two weeks of jury service, Nice said she was willing to forgo months of pay to serve.
All the potential jurors were asked whether they had ever been a victim of a crime or involved in a lawsuit. Nice said no to both questions.
In fact, Peterson's lawyers said, Nice in 2000 had obtained a restraining order against her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend for harassing her when she was 4 1/2 months pregnant.
Nice filed a lawsuit to obtain the order, saying she feared for her unborn child. The attacker was tried based on Nice's charges, convicted and sentenced to a week in jail, according to Peterson's lawyers.
They also said Nice also was one of two holdouts for convicting Peterson of first-degree murder for killing his unborn child. The jury convicted Peterson of the first-degree murder of Laci and the second-degree murder of the fetus, whom Nice called "Little Man."
After the trial, Peterson's lawyers said, Nice wrote Peterson more than two dozen letters, many of them focused on the killing of his unborn son.
Peterson was tried in San Mateo County after a judge ruled he could not get a fair trial in Stanislaus County. Stanislaus County prosecutors may seek a new penalty trial for Peterson to try to get the death penalty reinstated. Goold, the district attorney's spokesman, said no decision has been made on that.
Loyola's Levinson said the errors the judge made in the Peterson case and the possible juror misconduct raised questions about less visible death penalty trials.
"If this can happen in a high-profile case, it certainly makes us wonder what is happening in cases that are not under the microscope," she said.
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