Legal Challenges In The Spotlight

Attorney Chris Darden Talks About The Peterson Evidence

What evidence do prosecutors have linking Scott Peterson to the murders of his wife and unborn son, and will the jury buy it? Attorney Chris Darden, who gained fame as a member of the prosecution team during the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, talks to CBS News Correspondent Erin Moriarty about the challenges ahead for both sides in the case.

Case after high-profile case have taught prosecutors one thing:

"There's no such thing as a slam dunk."

That's according to 48-year-old Chris Darden, the man we watched on television every day for nearly nine months back in 1995. He and Marcia Clark prosecuted the mother of all murder trials, the State of California vs. O.J. Simpson.

Every move Darden made, and every perceived mistake - like asking Simpson to try on the glove – played out in front of millions.

It is, in part, because of the media frenzy surrounding Scott Peterson's trial that cameras have been barred from the courtroom. Still, Darden believes it will be just as riveting as the O.J. trial.

Darden, now a defense attorney and CNN legal analyst, says, "When you look at the case, it has a lot of the things that we saw in the Simpson case and that we see in other high-profile cases. There is sex. There is deception."

And like the Simpson case, Darden says the outcome isn't certain. No matter how many armchair analysts have pronounced Peterson guilty.

The fact is, the prosecutors have their work cut out for them. There are no eyewitnesses to the alleged crime and no murder weapon was found. Medical examiners were unable to determine exactly how Laci Peterson died. They can't even say for certain that she was murdered.

The lack of a cause of death, says Darden, "is a huge problem and I think that it will be the primary focus in the defense case."

Prosecutors believe that Peterson killed his wife either on the night of December 23, 2002, or in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve. Then, they allege, he used his fishing boat to dump her body in San Francisco Bay.

But there may be a problem with that timeline: The day before Laci disappeared, a doctor estimated her unborn baby was 32 weeks old. But the baby's body that washed ashore four months later was more developed.
According to Darden, the fetus has been determined to have been between 34 to 40 weeks old. "Hence, the argument that Laci Peterson didn't die on Dec. 23rd, as the prosecution asserted," he says. "We know that he couldn't have done it after that, so who did?"

What's more, there were at least three people who say they saw Laci walking her dog mid-morning on Christmas Eve, hours after prosecutors believe she was killed.

Homer Maldonado was one, and then there was Vivian Mitchell, a defense attorney's dream witness. But she died before trial, and her testimony is unlikely to be allowed into the trial.

"I don't know how the defense can get around the hearsay rule regarding this information," says Darden. "This is a huge, huge loss for the defendant."

Peterson may have scored a victory last week when the judge ruled that two controversial witnesses would be able to testify. They reportedly saw strange men and a brown van in the neighborhood around the time Laci vanished.

And if opening statements are any indication—there appears to be a surprisingly small amount of physical evidence in this case.

Says Darden, "If there's no blood at Scott Peterson's home, if there's no indication or proof that he killed Laci there, if there's no indication or proof that he killed Laci on his boat, well then you know, where did this murder happen - if it happened at all?"

Darden says the prosecutors do have a lot of strong circumstantial evidence to connect Peterson to the death of his wife and child.

But two days into the trial, it's clear that what the prosecutors DO have is plenty of circumstantial evidence to connect Peterson to the murders:

  • Laci Peterson's body was found in the same bay where her husband said he was fishing the day she disappeared.
  • A hair similar to Laci's was found on pliers on Peterson's boat.
  • Cement residue (at the warehouse where he kept his boat) that might have been used to make anchors to weigh down his wife's body.
  • And the most damaging evidence against Scott Peterson is his own behavior - lies and conflicting stories. Less than three weeks after Laci disappeared but before her body was found, Peterson was already planning his life without her, preparing to sell their home and trade in her SUV.

The prosecution, Darden says, is "going to ask the jurors to look at all these bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence and draw a certain inference from that evidence. That inference being that Scott Peterson killed his wife and baby."

Also critical to the prosecution's case is 29-year-old Amber Frey. She's the massage therapist with whom Scott Peterson was having an affair when his wife disappeared.

"I think Amber Frey may hold the keys to the jailhouse door for Scott Peterson," says Darden.

Frey says that when she met Scott Peterson in November 2002, a little more than a month before Laci disappeared, he told her he wasn't married. When he finally admitted the truth - days after his wife vanished, but months before her body was found - Frey began to secretly tape their phone calls for police.

If the jury hears Scott Peterson promising to be with his mistress, that may be enough for the prosecution to prove pre-meditated first-degree murder. Such a conviction could bring the death penalty.

Defense attorneys, Darden says, "will have to question her credibility."

The prosecution will need to convince 12 jurors to convict Scott Peterson. But Darden reminded us that the defense only needs a little serious doubt.

"All they need is one juror," says Darden. "They start with one juror. If one juror disbelieves the prosecution's case, they have a hung jury. That's all they need."