On this day in 2004, opening statements begin in the trial of Scott Peterson, accused of murdering his wife Laci and the couple’s unborn son. On Christmas Eve 2002, the pregnant Laci had disappeared from Modesto, California. The case captivated millions across America and saturated national media coverage for nearly two years.
When initially questioned about his wife’s whereabouts, Peterson claimed that Laci had disappeared sometime after leaving the house to walk their dog and after he left on a fishing trip to nearby San Francisco Bay. About one month later, Amber Frey, a 28-year-old massage therapist from Fresno, California, came forward to tell police that she’d had an affair with Scott Peterson, shattering his image as a devoted husband to his pretty and pregnant wife. As police continued to search for Laci and clues that might explain her disappearance, Scott Peterson sold her sports-utility vehicle, leading to suspicions that he might be trying to get rid of evidence.
The bodies of Laci and her baby were found washed up on shore near the marina where Scott Peterson kept his boat on April 13 and 14, 2003. Within a week, Scott Peterson was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, with the special circumstance of double homicide, which opened the door for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. He was arrested in San Diego carrying large amounts of cash and his brother’s passport, and with a new hair color and cut, seemingly on the verge of running from police.
Soon after pleading not guilty to the charges, Peterson retained the legal services of well-known celebrity attorney Mark Geragos. His trial began on June 1, 2004. Over the course of the next 19 weeks, prosecutors introduced 174 witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence designed to paint Scott Peterson as a cold and heartless man who continued to lie and cheat on his wife even as he appeared on television feigning despair over her disappearance. They pointed out how he referred to himself as a “widower” even before his wife’s body had been found. The prosecution’s case was hampered, however, by the fact that they had no eyewitness to the crime and had not found a weapon. Meanwhile, Geragos worked to convince the jury of an alternate scenario in which someone else had murdered Laci while she was walking the dog, then framed Scott after learning of his alibi from the news. Peterson did not take the stand.
Finally, on November 12, 2004, after seven days of deliberation that involved the replacement of two jurors, Scott Peterson was convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife and the second-degree murder of his unborn son. He was unemotional during the reading of the verdict, which was greeted with cheers and celebration by Laci’s friends in the audience and the hundreds of supporters waiting outside the courthouse.
On March 16, 2005, Scott Peterson was formally sentenced to death by lethal injection. He remains on death row in California’s San Quentin prison.