Scott Peterson's death sentence was overturned Monday by the California Supreme Court, which upheld his murder conviction in the killing of his pregnant wife, but said the trial judge made "significant" mistakes during jury selection.
Peterson was sentenced to death in 2005 for the highly publicized murder of his 27-year-old wife, Laci, who was eight months pregnant with their son, Conner, when she was killed. Peterson dumped her from his fishing boat into San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve in 2002.
Their bodies surfaced months later.
“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.”
But, the high court noted, the trial judge “made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase.”
At issue, the justices said, was the improper dismissal of potential jurors who said they disagreed with capital punishment, but would be willing to follow the law and impose it.
“While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror’s views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” the court unanimously ruled.
Prosecutors may retry Peterson on the sentencing phase of his trial, the court said. Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager did not immediately say if she would seek the death penalty a second time.
Because of legal challenges, the death penalty has not been used in California since 2006. Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions for the duration of his term.
Peterson, 47, was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of his wife and second-degree murder in the death of their unborn son.