SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) -- More than 15 years after the Christmas Eve murder of pregnant Modesto schoolteacher Laci Peterson grabbed national headlines, the California Supreme Court tossed out the death sentence of her husband, Scott Peterson, and ordered a new penalty phase trial.
The court decision leaves the murder conviction in place. However, the court said prosecutors may try again for a death sentence if they wish in the high-profile case at a new penalty phase trial.
"Peterson contends his trial was flawed for multiple reasons, beginning with the unusual amount of pretrial publicity that surrounded the case. We reject Peterson's claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder," the court said.
But it said the trial judge "made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson's right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase."
It agreed with his argument that potential jurors were improperly dismissed from the jury pool after saying they personally disagreed with the death penalty but would be willing to follow the law and impose it.
Since his conviction on November 12, 2004, conviction, Peterson has been housed on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison. After his highly publicized trial, a San Mateo County jury convicted him of first-degree murder for his wife's death and second-degree murder of his unborn son, Conner.
Peterson's attorney, noted death penalty lawyer Cliff Gardner, filed a 423-page document with the court, appealing the conviction. Peterson has always maintained his innocence and his appeal to the Supreme Court was no different.
Gardner claimed in the appeal that the overwhelming publicity Peterson's trial received, incorrect evidentiary rulings, and other mistakes deprived him of a fair trial. Peterson was convicted in 2004 after a trial that his attorney argues surpassed the O.J. Simpson murder trial in terms of publicity.
Peterson claims that Laci was killed sometime after he left their Modesto home on the morning of Dec. 24, 2002, to go fishing in the San Francisco Bay. Gardner noted that Peterson was convicted and sentenced to death even though investigators never directly proved "how, where or when" the murder occurred.
Prosecutors told the jury that Laci was killed sometime between the night of Dec. 23, 2002, and the morning of Dec. 24, 2002. They believed Laci was suffocated in her home, but Gardner argues that there was little evidence collected at the house to support that theory.
Gardner also argued that the intense publicity the case generated almost from the moment Laci disappeared deprived Peterson of a fair trial.
The trial was ordered moved from Stanislaus County of the Petersons' home, to San Mateo County. Gardner argued that the trial should have been moved yet again because of the crush of publicity in San Mateo County.
"Before hearing even a single witness, nearly half of all prospective jurors admitted they had already decided Mr. Peterson was guilty of capital murder," Gardner argued.
And in what may be a first for the American system of justice, outside the courthouse in which the parties would try to select a fair jury, a radio station posted a large billboard which had a telephone number for people to call in and vote whether Peterson was a "man or monster." Peterson was pictured in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit.
Beyond issues with the publicity, Gardner argued the late Judge Alfred Delucchi made several erroneous evidentiary decisions and other rulings that led to Peterson receiving an unfair trial.
Gardner complained the judge automatically excluded prospective jurors who said they opposed the death penalty. Gardner argued that those jurors should have been questioned more about whether they could still decide the case fairly.
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