Here’s a name we haven’t seen in the news for quite a while now. In 2004, Scott Peterson was convicted of the brutal murders of his wife Laci and their unborn son. The following year he was sentenced to die. While Peterson continued to protest his innocence throughout the proceedings, the testimony of his mistress (who it is claimed he killed Laci to be with) wound up being crucial in convicting him. As happens in so many of these cases, the appeals process has dragged on for fifteen years, but it took yet another twist in the California State Supreme Court this week. While not tossing out Peterson’s murder conviction, the court overturned the death penalty, effectively reducing his sentence to life without the possibility of parole. But the prosecutors may get another bite at the apple if they want to go through part of the trial process again. (NY Post)

California’s highest court overturned Scott Peterson’s death sentence Monday — although it still left the door open for the pregnant-wife killer to be executed.

The state’s supreme court balked at the notion that Peterson — who in 2002 murdered wife Laci, 27, to be with his mistress — was wrongfully convicted because of jury bias.

“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.”

If the court agrees that Peterson received a fair trial and he actually murdered his wife and their child, how did they manage to toss out the death penalty ruling? Well, it comes down to something of a technicality, though their explanation certainly leaves quite a bit to be desired.

The court took issue with the prosecutors’ actions during voir dire, the jury selection process. They didn’t find any sort of racial bias or other demographic anomalies (Peterson is White, by the way), but instead focused on the jury members’ personal feelings about the death penalty as expressed during selection. It seems that potential jurors who were opposed to the death penalty in principle were rejected and the court somehow found that to be disqualifying.

“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’s judges wrote in their unanimous opinion.

Aren’t those two statements directly self-contradicting? The court acknowledges the concept that a person whose views on the death penalty “would substantially impair hir or her ability to follow the law” can be dismissed. If the prosecution not only obtains a guilty verdict but establishes that the criteria required to impose the death penalty have been met, then “following the law” would mean voting in favor of capital punishment. But in the same breath, they claim that a juror can’t be dismissed if they have “expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter.” If you’re opposed to the entire concept of taking the life of convicted killers, how can you be expected to “follow the law” during the sentencing phase? It simply makes no sense.

With all of that said, I will just note that I’ve had some second thoughts about the Peterson trial over the years, though it has nothing to do with the jury selection process in the penalty phase of the trial. I followed it very closely when it was playing out and by the time it was done I was 100% convinced that they had the right suspect and Peterson deserved to die. But in later years, when the case was being reexamined, some doubt began to creep into my mind. He’s maintained his innocence without wavering from the beginning. And yes, I know that doesn’t count for much. The jails are full of nothing but innocent people if you believe their defense attorneys. But there’s more to it than that.

Yes, Peterson had the motive and the opportunity. That much is beyond doubt. But there were multiple witnesses who turned up and claimed to have seen Laci Peterson out walking the family dog hours after Scott Peterson left for work. And he was able to account for his whereabouts from the moment he left the house. Others saw the family dog running loose in a nearby park. The home across from the Petersons’ house was being burglarized while Scott was a work. No physical or biological evidence of murder was ever found in the Peterson home. All of these factors seem to present a reasonable doubt, at least to me. You can’t take back the death penalty once it’s been imposed, and if there’s any chance we’ve got the wrong guy then the death penalty should probably be off the table. The prosecutors get another shot at it, however, if they want to redo the sentencing phase of the trial.

A&E produced a documentary about this case a couple of years ago and it really raised a lot of valid questions, at least for me. The following preview of it hits most of the highlights and it’s only about five minutes long. It’s a good refresher if you are interested but not all that familiar with the case.