Analysts: Laci Case Floundering

Scott Peterson and the scales of justice over a faded photo of Laci Peterson AP / CBS

Before he got hired as Scott Peterson's lawyer, Mark Geragos went on TV and declared that prosecutors had amassed a "damning circumstantial case" that Peterson murdered his pregnant wife.

It hardly looks that way now.

Nine weeks into the trial, a stumbling prosecution has let a deft defense gain such an advantage that without a tide-turning moment, Peterson will probably walk, trial-watchers agree. Nearly every day, defense lawyers explain away details that once seemed incriminating.

The $250,000 life insurance policy taken out on Laci Peterson? A prosecution witness, the man who sold the policy, acknowledged suggesting the purchase and said Laci pushed for a higher amount.

The hair found on Scott Peterson's boat? Prosecutors said Peterson never showed Laci the boat, bought shortly before she disappeared. But Peterson's lawyers countered that a witness saw Laci at the warehouse where the boat was stored days before she vanished.

The cement anchors prosecutors say Peterson used to sink the body in San Francisco Bay? Extensive searches yielded nothing, and defense lawyers got a detective to admit that the plastic pitcher prosecutors said Peterson used to mold the anchors would not have worked.

And the defense has not even begun calling witnesses yet.

"If you were to stop this case today, I think everyone with a conscience would have to vote not guilty," said Dean Johnson, a former prosecutor and daily trial-watcher.

A dismissed juror confirmed that suspicion, griping that prosecutors presented witnesses out of logical order and tortured the panel with mind-numbing minutia.

With no clear-cut forensic evidence or eyewitness testimony connecting Peterson to the killing, prosecutors have relied on circumstantial evidence. Among other things: Peterson was having an affair, lied about it, and placed himself just miles from where the remains of Laci Peterson and the couple's unborn son washed ashore.

But the detours began with the prosecution's first witnesses, many of whom appeared to add nothing substantial to the case.

Prosecutors called a supermarket clerk who discussed in painstaking detail each item Laci Peterson bought on Dec. 23, 2002, the day before she was reported missing. Later, prosecutors called an expert to talk about plant material he tested at the request of police, never saying where it was found or why it was significant.

Prosecutors could still recover, with their last, best chance probably Peterson's mistress, Amber Frey. Aside from personal profit as his motive for murder, they allege he was obsessed with Frey and wanted to escape from what appeared to be a picture-perfect marriage.

"I think they are saving the best for last and hoping they can end like fireworks at a rock concert," Johnson said. But he added: "That's a very high-risk strategy. If it works, they end on a high note. If it fails ... they're in a lot of trouble."

There are other major prosecution witnesses to come — among them Peterson himself, in wiretapped telephone calls with Frey and TV interviews in the weeks after his wife vanished. Police dog handlers are set to testify that their animals picked up Laci Peterson's scent at a marina where Peterson launched what he claims was a solo fishing trip the day she vanished. And a DNA expert will testify about the hair found on Peterson's boat.

But if Frey is to salvage the case, she must reveal something incriminating, not just tawdry details of the affair, according to prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Michael Cardoza.

"They're certainly doing this backward," Cardoza said. "It's easier to convince somebody than to change their minds. And they're not convincing anyone."

Defense lawyers claim someone kidnapped Laci, then framed her husband after learning his alibi. The bodies washed up a few miles from the marina.

It's an argument Geragos once said wouldn't wash. But that was before he was hired by Peterson.

During the trial, Geragos has hammered away at detectives to show they bungled the investigation by ignoring leads that didn't point to Peterson — one that Laci was held hostage, another from a convicted sex offender whose alleged confession police dismissed because he had mental problems.

On Thursday, Geragos will ask for a dismissal or a mistrial. His central claim: A detective was so intent on twisting what little he found to convict Peterson that he lied on the stand.

The judge is not expected to grant either request, and the prosecution still has one advantage that won't change, said another trial regular, former San Francisco prosecutor Jim Hammer.

"The bodies washed up within two miles of where he makes his impromptu fishing trip. That screams at you," Hammer said. He said prosecutors' best hope "is to really convince the jury on a very deep level that he's a sociopath. I don't think he comes across as a monster yet."
  • Lloyd Vries

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