Scott Peterson, Guilty? Scott Peterson faces a possible verdict this week

Scott Peterson, Guilty? Scott Peterson faces a possible verdict this week

by James Peters, Esq., December 2009

The jury is still out in the Scott Peterson trial. In fact, one of the jurors was recently dismissed, forcing the entire jury to begin anew after 4 days of deliberating. Like many high-profile cases, the Peterson case has been a regular feature in the media, dominating headlines and fueling constant speculation among devoted trial watchers. A few of the more zealous spectators have even posted websites where visitors can place wagers on the trial's outcome. By week's end, jurors will likely produce a verdict and, according to the online wagering crowd, the odds are not in Peterson's favor. If you're among the few who haven't spent a year glued to the television, the following summary offers you an opportunity to weigh in at the water cooler when the jury finally delivers its verdict.

Christmas Eve, 2002 -"I lost my wife"

Laci Peterson disappeared on December 24th, 2002. Her husband, Scott Peterson, told detectives that he had "lost" his pregnant wife. According to Peterson, Laci had planned to go grocery shopping and then walk their dog at a local park while he went on a fishing trip near their home in Modesto, California. Peterson alleges that when he returned home later that night, Laci was gone.

Police searched the park, but found no sign of Laci Peterson. Search parties formed almost immediately as volunteers and police officers scoured the city of Modesto and then spread out across central and northern California. Laci's family raised a $500,000 reward, but no trace of Laci ever surfaced. As time passed and the search parties failed to turn up anything, the police changed Laci's case from a missing person search to a homicide investigation. Not long after, detectives revealed that Scott Peterson was a suspect. On April 13, 2003, Scott Peterson was arrested and charged with two counts of murder—one for Laci and one for their unborn child. Under California law, a fetus over the age of seven weeks can be considered a murder victim. The double-murder charge meant Peterson could face the death penalty if convicted.

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence of all came from a cement expert whose testimony was used to establish the fact that Scott Peterson had manufactured at least one cement weight that remains unaccounted for.

"Two to one, the odds are Peterson will be found guilty."

Prosecutors for the State of California painted a grim portrait of the defendant, claiming Peterson killed his wife (who at the time was just one month away from delivering their first child), dumped her body in the ocean and then told her family and police that she had disappeared from their home. The prosecution made it known they would seek the death penalty. And at the time, the odds were not in Scott Peterson's favor. But as the trial unfolded, early errors by the prosecution team had many believing that Peterson might walk away with an acquittal. In so far as online gambling sites can be viewed as an analog for public opinion—for a brief period, it seemed the odds of a guilty verdict dropped as low as 1.2 to 1.

As time progressed, however, the momentum in the case slowly shifted. The prosecution worked diligently to repair their case, focusing on a motive that included the existence of an extramarital affair, claims that Laci's pregnancy was unwanted by Scott, and the coupling of the Petersons' financial problems with a life insurance policy covering Laci. The prosecution next concentrated on establishing premeditation, a necessary element in first-degree murder. They pointed to Scott's planned fishing trip, including his purchase of a fishing license several days before Laci's disappearance, and his research of currents and boat launches as proof that he planned the murder and disposal of his wife's body.

After establishing a motive, prosecutors entered into evidence damaging accounts from the lead investigator, audio and videotapes that showed Mr. Peterson lying, and testimony from several expert witnesses. Finally, jurors were introduced to Ms. Amber Frey, the woman with whom Scott Peterson was having an affair just before Laci's disappearance. Even worse for Mr. Peterson was the admission of recorded phone conversations in which Peterson told Ms. Frey a number of lies. By the time prosecutors had finished with their witnesses, Mr. Peterson's chances of acquittal looked increasingly slim.

"The most damning piece of evidence of all"

But perhaps the most damning piece of evidence of all came from a cement expert whose testimony was used to establish the fact that Scott Peterson had manufactured at least one cement weight that remains unaccounted for. It was the introduction of this piece of evidence that shifted the online odds back to a ratio heavily favoring a guilty verdict. The prosecution's focus on such evidence, inconsistencies in Scott's stories, and the fact that the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn child were located just over a mile from Scott's supposed fishing location seem to have clinched what most people see as the likely outcome of the trial. To make things even more difficult for the defense, the judge in the case has ruled that the jury will be allowed to consider a lesser charge of second-degree murder, which would carry a sentence of 15 years-to-life for each death. The lesser charge does not require a finding of premeditation, and Mr. Peterson would not be subject to the death penalty if convicted. While this may initially sound like good news for the defense team, a lesser charge could also make it a lot easier for undecided jurors to convict Peterson.

Taken together, the circumstantial evidence is abundant and fairly compelling, yet at the end of the day it is still just that—circumstantial. All it takes is one juror with reasonable doubt to derail a guilty verdict. And that is the just sort of statistical long shot that every high-stakes bettor hopes for.