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The LA Innocence Project Takes Scott Peterson's Case

By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant with her son, Connor, when she disappeared from her home in Modesto, California on December 24, 2002 while her husband Scott was out fishing. The remains of her and her son were discovered on the shore of San Francisco Bay in April 2003, not far from where Scott had been fishing on the day of her disappearance. Scott was arrested and charged with her murder within days of the discovery.

The case drew national attention and inspired a lot of discussion, commentary, and writing, including from some of our fellow writers here at FindLaw. Recounting the details of the trial would be both redundant and time-consuming, but suffice to say it did not go well for Mr. Peterson, who was ultimately sentenced to death.

Peterson appealed his death sentence to the Supreme Court of California in July 2012, alleging a whole array of problems with the prosecution’s case, their handling of evidence, the way the jury was selected and treated, and 423 other pages’ worth of objections from every angle. The appeal languished for a full eight years before the Supreme Court of California heard Peterson’s case.

The Supreme Court of California ruled unanimously to overturn Peterson’s death sentence on August 24, 2020, though they declined to overturn his conviction. A California Superior Court Judge re-sentenced Peterson to life in prison without the possibility of parole a year later. Obviously, Mr. Peterson wasn’t a big fan of this decision (he would prefer to not be in prison) but the court’s hands were essentially tied given its understanding of the case and the jury’s ruling.

Peterson was moved off of San Quentin’s death row and transferred to Mule Creek State Prison in October 2022, where he would stay for the rest of his life.

And then the LA Innocence Project got involved.

Save Scott?

The LA Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to: "…exonerate the wrongly convicted; free the wrongfully incarcerated; uncover and remedy past misuse of forensic and other scientific evidence in the courtroom; improve standards for the use of forensic and other scientific evidence in the courtroom; and improve the dialogue between scientists and stakeholders in the criminal legal system and reform the criminal legal system to prevent future injustice."

The organization’s mission is noble (ridiculous misuse of semicolons notwithstanding), and the work the LAIP has done led to the exoneration of at least one man who served 38 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. Unfortunately, the statement on the LAIP’s website doesn’t provide much information about why they took up Peterson’s case or what new angle they’re taking in his defense.

Thankfully the 436-page court filing that the LAIP submitted on Peterson’s behalf is a lot more detailed.

New Questions, New Evidence

The LAIP has made a series of requests for 15 categories of evidence for their investigation. Some are focused on revisiting parts of the case that Peterson, his attorneys, and the LAIP believe have been mishandled. Others are aimed at supporting the case they are building around four key pieces of new, previously ignored, or mishandled evidence that they believe may exonerate Peterson.

First: Witnesses may have seen Laci Peterson walking their dog around the neighborhood after Scott left to go fishing, which would decimate the timeline that police and prosecutors constructed. It’s kind of hard to make someone disappear when you aren’t physically present, after all, and no one has suggested Scott having any kind of accomplices.

Second: The house across the street was burglarized around the same time Laci disappeared. It is theoretically possible that the burglars, not Scott, kidnapped and killed Laci, then dumped her body in the bay. Police caught and questioned two of the burglars, neither of whom admitted having anything to do with Laci’s disappearance and death – which is exactly what a burglar-turned-murderer would say in that situation.

Third: Someone set a very creepy van on fire in an alley less than a mile from the Peterson’s house on the same day that Laci was reported missing. That’s weird enough (not to mention a waste of a perfectly good van) but what really gave LAIP and Peterson pause was the revelation that a bloodstained mattress was discovered in the back of the van. It’s unclear whether the blood was Laci’s. That said, omitting it from the evidence in the case seems like an oversight, at best.

Fourth: Laci’s Croton watch was sold at two separate pawn shops while she was still missing. The LAIP is asking for all of the records associated with the investigation into the watch that was pawned on December 31, 2002, a week after her disappearance, and then again on February 14, 2003. Of note is the original person who pawned the watch gave the name "Deanna R," suggesting someone female-presenting did the pawning.

Will Peterson Go Free?

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. Peterson’s case was already one full of twists, turns, revelations, errors, and assumptions, so it’s fair to expect more of the same shortly. One almost hopes that Peterson’s guilt is upheld due to overwhelming evidence – otherwise, the courts gave an innocent man the death penalty and held him in prison for over two decades.

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