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Scott Peterson returns to court to fight 2004 murder conviction with help of Los Angeles Innocence Project

Los Angeles Innocence Project pushes for DNA testing at Scott Peterson court hearing
Los Angeles Innocence Project pushes for DNA testing at Scott Peterson court hearing 03:10

Convicted killer Scott Peterson appeared in a San Mateo County courtroom Tuesday morning as he fights to overturn his 2004 conviction for the murders of his pregnant wife and their unborn son.

Peterson attended Tuesday morning's status conference hearing remotely and did not speak much outside of formalities like, "Yes, your honor."

The Los Angeles Innocence Project took up Peterson's case in January, filing a motion for DNA testing to clear Peterson possibly. There are three motions pending, including one for post-conviction DNA testing - specifically surrounding a van that was near the Peterson's home that was involved in a burglary at or near the time of Laci's disappearance.

The L.A. Innocence Project recently used DNA evidence to overturn the murder conviction of Maurice Hastings, who spent nearly four decades in prison before he was declared factually innocent earlier this month.

Scott Peterson Oct 2022 mug shot
Scott Peterson Oct 2022 mug shot. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

"We were very, very specific. We spent a lot of time trying to suss out what, frankly, are very alarming deficiencies in the discovery that was provided to the defense at the time of trial," said Paula Mitchell with the LA Innocence Project. "Those are the items that we are requesting. The nature of the request is not a fishing expedition. They're very precise and very specific."

Although the case is originally from Stanislaus County and is being prosecuted by the county's District Attorney's Office, the San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City is serving as the venue for Tuesday's hearing as it was during the original trial.

Peterson was convicted in November 2004 of the first-degree murder of Laci Peterson, 27, and second-degree murder of the unborn son they were going to name Conner, dumping them into San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002. Their bodies were found months after they were reported missing from their home in Modesto. The judge moved the case to San Mateo County because of the concern people in Stanislaus County had made up their minds about Peterson's guilt.   

Peterson was arrested in April 2003 shortly after Amber Frey, a massage therapist living in Fresno, told police that they had begun dating a month before his wife's death and that he had told her his wife was dead.

Outside of court on Tuesday, Peterson's attorney Paula Canny referenced the affair in comments to reporters.

"What if he's not guilty, okay?" said Canny. "What if he had an affair and was a crappy husband? What if he didn't kill her? If that [DNA] testing shows what they think it's going to show – it's a whole new ballgame, so to speak."

She said the fact that the L.A. Innocence Project even took on Peterson's case is significant.

"That organization, which only represents people who the project believes is innocent and can be exonerated by DNA evidence, has taken this up," Canny said.

Also present was Peterson's sister-in-law and fierce advocate, Janey Peterson. She did not address the media after the proceedings wrapped up, but Mitchell provided the following statement:

"The Los Angeles Innocence Project filed motions in January asking the Court to order further discovery of evidence and allow new DNA testing to support our investigation into Mr. Peterson's claim of actual innocence. Today's hearing was just the first step in a long process. We have not commented on our motions, and we will continue to present our case in court - where it should be adjudicated." 

Peterson was sentenced to death in March 2005. He had admitted to police he was fishing on the day his wife disappeared but during the trial, he could not explain what type of fish he was trying to catch that day. Peterson had also sold his wife's car, researched selling their house, and turned the baby nursery into a storage room in the weeks after Laci disappeared.

The California Supreme Court in 2020 overturned Peterson's death sentence after finding that potential jurors were improperly dismissed after saying they disagreed with the death penalty but would follow the law and impose it. 

In 2021, Peterson was resentenced to life in prison without parole under the glaring eyes of Laci Peterson's family. Peterson was moved from San Quentin State Prison, now known as San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, to Mule Creek State Prison east of Sacramento in 2022.

Later that year, a judge denied Peterson's plea for a new trial, ruling that a former juror was not guilty of misconduct during the trial.

Max Darrow contributed to this story.

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