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Will Scott Peterson get a new trial? Closing arguments begin in San Mateo County courtroom

Final arguments begin in Scott Peterson's bid for new trial
Final arguments begin in Scott Peterson's bid for new trial 01:38

SAN MATEO -- Convicted killer Scott Peterson returned to a San Mateo County courtroom Thursday for closing arguments in his plea for a new trial in the 2002 Christmas Eve murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, and unborn son Connor.

Wearing a mask and a red prison jumpsuit, the handcuffed Peterson sat stoically as the closing arguments began.

In a highly publicized 2004 trial, a jury convicted Peterson of the murders in Modesto and he was sentenced to death during the penalty phase in 2005.

He spent nearly two decades on death row before the California Supreme Court tossed out his sentence in 2020 on grounds that the jury was improperly screened for bias against the death penalty. He has since been sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The court also ordered San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo to review the case and determine if Peterson deserves a new trial. She has 90 days to make her decision.

After several days of testimony in March, prosecutors and Peterson's lawyers were ordered to return to court Thursday for closing arguments.

The new trial appears to hinge on whether former juror Richelle Nice was guilty of misconduct. Peterson's defense team must first prove to Massullo that Nice lied on her pre-trial jury questionnaire to get on the panel and was biased against Peterson from the start, tainting his jury and denying him a fair trial.  

Nice, who has been granted immunity, spent several days on the stand. During hours of intense cross-examination in March, Nice continued to maintain she did nothing wrong and had no bias in her guilty verdict.

Peterson's appellate lawyer Cliff Gardner on Thursday admitted his client's trial attorney made a mistake not questioning Nice after she indicated on a jury questionnaire that she couldn't stick solely to evidence at trial and avoid preexisting opinions from influencing her verdict.

"She checked she couldn't be fair," San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo said. "He never even followed up."

Gardner said he thought defense lawyers believed Nice's answer was an error on the questionnaire, but agreed it was a mistake not to ask about it. But he said her response reinforced his argument that she was gunning for Peterson.

"It seems astonishing to me," Gardner said. "It seems absolutely consistent with the idea that she had some kind of predetermined bias in the case and she was talking about it there."  

Nice failed to disclose on her juror declaration that she had sought a restraining order in 2000 against her then boyfriend's former girlfriend, saying then that she feared for her own unborn child.

That, Peterson's attorneys say, colored her view of their client, accused of killing his wife when she was eight months pregnant.

"I didn't write it on the questionnaire because it never crossed my mind, ever. It wasn't done intentionally — it didn't cross my mind," Nice has testified.

Peterson's lawyers contend, among other things, that Nice sought to be on the jury because she wanted notoriety and for financial reasons. Nice, who was dubbed "Strawberry Shortcake" for her bright red hair, later co-authored a book about the case with six other jurors.

Gardner said there was a chasm between what Nice had written in legal papers and what she testified to during the hearing held over several days in February and March.

Nice testified in March that she didn't recall a fellow juror's account that when she joined the jury in deliberations she declared, "We should get Scott for what he did to Laci and 'little man.'"

"It doesn't sound like something I would say, but I have no idea," she said. "I don't remember this."

Nice testified earlier that she held no bias against Peterson until after she heard the evidence that he dumped his wife's body in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002.

Stanislaus County prosecutors contend there was no juror misconduct and that Nice either misunderstood or misinterpreted the questionnaire.

Special Assistant District Attorney David Harris said there was no evidence Nice had a secret motive to get on the Peterson jury.

Harris said defense attorney Mark Geragos actually tried to keep Nice in the selection process after the judge dismissed her because her employer would only pay two weeks for jury service.

After Geragos interjected to say she could serve if she was willing, the judge said Nice could stay if she wanted, Harris said. She then sat back down and eventually became an alternate juror who joined the deliberations after two original jurors were removed.

"She's trying to leave," Harris said. "This is not ... I really want to be here because I'm gonna secretly get this guy. ... If that's the case, she's the world's worst spy because she's already been excused."

Geragos relied on her false answers and never would have allowed Nice to stay on the jury had he known about the restraining order, Gardner said.

Harris said Nice truthfully answered questions about her ability to be fair and said she had no opinion based on pretrial publicity.

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