Peterson Verdict: Now What?

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Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBSNews.com and CBS News.



It started with jury selection on March 4, two days after the Democratic primary in California, when Howard Dean still was in the race. It chugged along, stopping and starting and often sputtering, for over eight months, over twice as long as each of the Oklahoma City bombing trials. While it was underway, thousands of people were murdered around the country, hundreds were murdered in California, and by my count at least 625 US soldiers were killed in action in Iraq.

And now it is over, or at least almost over. Scott Peterson has been found guilty of first-degree murder, a verdict that means he could be executed if these same jurors vote as the "conscience of their community" that he deserves to die for his crimes. Now those jurors -- who devoted two-thirds of a year to an endeavor they neither sought out nor shied away from -- are one step closer to moving on with the rest of their lives. It's a verdict that is somewhat surprising (given the lack of strong evidence) but not particularly symbolic (even though "Scott" and "Laci" and "Amber" have now entered the dubious legal lexicon along with "Chandra" and "O.J."). Husbands are accused of murdering their wives all the time in this country and quite often they are convicted of it.

So Scott Peterson was convicted because he's a liar and a cheat and a fink and because his famous lawyer was unable to come up with a plausible explanation for why Laci Peterson's body washed up where it washed up. In fact, he was convicted in part because defense attorney Mark Geragos offered so many explanations for Peterson's conduct and Laci's disappearance that prosecutors were able to make jurors laugh about the implausibility of them all. Memo to all of you aspiring lawyers out there: When the jury laughs aloud about the theory of your case it isn't a good sign.

Peterson was convicted despite the absence of a murder weapon -- prosecutors say Laci was strangled. He was convicted despite the absence of an eyewitness placing Peterson at the murder scene -- prosecutors couldn't even say with certainty where the murder took place. He was convicted without a confession and without a "smoking gun" piece of physical evidence. He was convicted despite a prosecution case that was so long and meandering and full of unfulfilled expectations it could have substituted for a television soap opera -- and often seemed to. He was convicted of being at the wrong place at the wrong time and for saying many of the wrong things, if not in court than certainly in tape-recorded messages to his mistress, Amber Frey.

Whether you agree with their decision or not, give the jurors credit for having the brevity and unity of purpose that eluded so many other participants in this case. After five months of evidence -- jury selection took about three additional months -- it's no great surprise that the panel wanted to quickly dispatch with its work after finally reconstituting itself earlier in the week. Obviously, the 10 jurors who had deliberated from the start had reached their conclusion and then quickly were able to determine that the two new jurors, who got into the jury room just in the past few days, felt the same way. And none of the jurors wanted to spend another weekend sequestered in a hotel room away from their friends and family.

In essence, the jury concluded that the circumstances surrounding Laci Peterson's disappearance and death could not reasonably be explained in any other way but that Scott Peterson wanted her dead so he could continue and perhaps expand his secret life with Amber Frey. Which goes precisely to motive. Although prosecutors didn't by law have to prove motive, motive might have been the strongest part of their case. Peterson was found guilty because jurors believed he had a motive to kill his wife and that Peterson's conduct -- before, during and after Laci Peterson's disappearance -- was too suspicious to be purely coincidental. He was found with dyed hair, a moustache, and $15,000 in cash near the Mexican border when he was captured, for example.

Even when there is very little evidence against you, this verdict teaches us, you need to have a plausible alibi and to act appropriately if you want to overcome a good argument that you had a motive to murder. Peterson didn't. So now his attorneys must stand before the jury and try to convince the panel that a man who murdered his pregnant wife after living a life of lies deserves sympathy and compassion. It will be a very hard sell. The way the defense shaped itself during the course of the trial leaves very little room for Peterson's attorneys now to turn around and have a lot of credibility when they beg for mercy on behalf of their client.

The penalty phase in the case will begin the week of Thanksgiving, perhaps a gift that Scott Peterson doesn't deserve. Jurors typically show more compassion and "heart" during the holiday season and if that holds true in this case perhaps a single juror will cut Peterson a break. But I wouldn't bet on it. Prosecutors will pour on the emotion during this next phase -- there will be a lot of tears in that courtroom. And, besides, the story speaks for itself; a lovely wife, pregnant, was murdered around the holiday season by her husband, a deceitful man whom jurors now believed killed her. It looks to be all downhill from here for prosecutors. And it looks awfully bleak for Peterson who, unless he gets some relief on appeal, looks today for all the world to be a condemned man.
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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