SAN MATEO COUNTY (KPIX) -- Lawyers for convicted killer Scott Peterson are ready to make a case for a new trial Friday as a key hearing gets underway.
The hearing will feature one witness' testimony that could determine if he gets a second chance in front of a jury.
After a lengthy trial that captivated the nation in the early 2000s, a jury found Peterson guilty of murdering his pregnant wife Laci and their unborn son, Conner.
Peterson, 49, was sentenced to death in 2005 but he was resentenced to life without parole in December. The California Supreme Court tossed out his original sentence in 2020 on grounds that the jury was improperly screened for bias against the death penalty.
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But now, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo is tasked with determining whether Peterson got a fair trial or not, based upon an allegation of juror misconduct.
On Friday, an evidentiary hearing that is expected to last around a week will begin. It will ultimately decide if Peterson gets a new trial.
"The issue is whether or not one of the jurors -- Juror 7 -- withheld information, or lied during the jury selection," said retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris H. Cordell, who followed the case closely. "In jury selection, prospective jurors are to tell the truth. That means to not omit things, or to not just blatantly lie. The issue is whether or not Juror 7 lied by not revealing that when she was pregnant, she had been the victim of violence in a domestic relationship."
That juror, Richelle Nice, will be the first person to take the stand and testify on Friday. Peterson's defense team argues Nice lied on her jury questionnaire and was biased against him.
In a 2017 interview with the Modesto Bee, Nice insisted, "I did not lie to get on this trial to fry Scott."
"Her testimony is going to be critical," Cordell said. "She's been granted immunity. So she's required now to answer all questions. She can't take the 5th once that happens. If she does, the judge will likely hold her in contempt, and she could go to jail."
The defense has a lineup of around a dozen witnesses they're ready to call on in addition to Nice, including:
- Steve Cardosi, jury forman from the trial
- Justin Falconer, a juror who was dismissed from the trial
- Greg Beratlis, a juror on the trial
- Mark Geragos, Peterson's defense attorney during the trial
- Shareen Anderson and Heath Orchard, executive producer and photographer for an A&E documentary called "The Murder of Laci Peterson"
- Johnny Dodd, a journalist
- Frank Swertlow and Lyndon Stambler, co-authors of the book "We, the Jury"
The prosecution has a lineup of a half-dozen witnesses they're ready to call on, including:
- Craig Grogan, Stanislaus County District Attorney investigator
- Bill Massey, San Mateo County Senior District Attorney inspector
- Nate Wandruff, Santa Clara County Senior Criminal investigator
- Richelle Nice, juror 7
- Elliot Silver and Negad Zaky, Nice's original attorneys
The attorneys do not have to call on all of the witnesses, and the judge has the final say in which witnesses get to testify, according to Cordell.
"It's one thing to have someone testify, but the judge also has to assess that person's credibility. That means looking at the person as they testify, and also, listening and watching how they react to questions that are put to them. So, this is a full plate for this trial judge," Cordell said.
Ultimately, it comes down to two important questions: was there juror misconduct? And if so, was the degree of the misconduct enough to warrant a new trial? It will be up to Judge Massullo to decide.
"One thing -- if I were a judge -- that I would want to know is, what happened in the jury deliberation room? We know that Juror number 7 was not the foreperson, but was she active in the deliberation room and just went in right off the top saying, 'Get him! He's guilty!'?" Cordell said. "I would be interested in knowing what those conversations were like. If she took a big lead in this and demonstrated a bias just walking into the jury room without even discussing it, that's further evidence to show that she was likely biased against Scott Peterson, and in favor of the prosecution."
Judge Massullo will have 90 days to render a decision, that will determine whether Peterson will spend the rest of his life in prison, or will get a new trial.
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