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Scott Peterson Sentencing

Sentenced to Death for Murder of Wife and Unborn Son

Jeralyn Merritt
Criminal Defense Lawyer
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; 3:00 PM

Criminal defense lawyer Jeralyn Merritt was online Wednesday, March 16, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the verdict in the Scott Peterson murder case.

Read the story:Scott Peterson to Be Sentenced to Death (Reuters, March 16)

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Springfield, Va.: How many years will Scott Peterson be on death row before he is executed? How much will it cost the California taxpayers to keep him alive while all the legal maneuvering takes place?

Jeralyn Merritt: The National Coalition to Abolish the Death penalty, ncadp.org, reports that various state governments have estimated the cost of a single death penalty case, from the point of arrest to execution, to range between $1 million and $3 million per case. Other studies have estimated the cost to be as high as $7 million per case.

Cases resulting in life imprisonment average around $500,000 each, including incarceration cost.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Is the jurors' experiment during deliberations -- climbing into the boat on the trailer and trying to rock it -- likely to get Peterson a new trial when it's appealed? It seems to me that they created evidence by conducting an unlawful experiment, something the defense wasn't able to answer. I think that it would be a travesty if that were to happen -- he's guilty as sin, but I think that's the law in California.

Jeralyn Merritt: I think the jurors' boat experiment is among Scott Peterson's best appellate arguments. The jurors were told not to conduct experiments. They are not allowed to conduct experiments that go beyond the purpose for which the evidence was admitted.

The Judge allowed the boat into evidence to show the placement of a body, not stability of the boat.

In addition, the Judge refused to allow a video of a defense experiment with the boat that did go to the issue of stability.


washingtonpost.com: National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty


Herndon, Va.: While I think Scott Peterson is a sorry excuse for a human being, I am not 100 percent convinced he did it. There is no smoking gun. So how is it that he gets the death penalty? Am I missing something other than the fact that people tend to be overly harsh when it comes to killing mothers and babies?
I think people forget that everything in the media is geared toward supporting SP's guilt. I don't think it's anywhere close to being objective.

Jeralyn Merritt: The death penalty was available to the jury because he was convicted of killing two persons. A fetus under California law is a person in this context.


San Diego, Calif.: Is it true, that once Scott Peterson is on death row, he cannot see or even talk to anyone on the outside except his lawyer?

Jeralyn Merritt: This may be true during his initial period at San Quentin while he is being evaluated, but I don't believe that will be true permanently. Certainly, his contacts will be severely limited. His parents eventually should be allowed to have periodic visits or telephone contact with him.

The rules at San Quentin should govern this and officials there have been very forthcoming with information.


Baltimore, Md.: Hello Ms. Merritt:

Just wondering what you think of Peterson's petition for a new trial based on improper independent investigation by the jury (rocking the boat allegedly used to dump the bodies). Seems to be arguable that this was improper, despite the trial judge allowing it. Was this routine handling of the evidence during deliberation, or improper investigation, before the close of evidence? Also, a broader question: It seems that the burden of proof in some murder cases has been lowered, and that the de facto burden is actually a preponderance of the evidence. In this case neither the cause of death nor the manner of death was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. While the circumstantial evidence was quite damning, absent hard forensic evidence as to cause and manner, it strains credulity to say that these facts were established beyond a reasonable doubt. Thanks for your comments.

Jeralyn Merritt: I agree with you that the evidence was not sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

It was a circumstantial case. There was no cause of death, no time of death, no murder weapon, no evidence as to how she was killed, no identifiable crime scene, no eyewitnesses, no confessions.

There was a hair in a pair of pliers in the boat but hair is so easily transferred it does not support a conclusion that she was on the boat.

Everyone in America knew Scott Peterson's alibi was that he was fishing in the bay within a few days of her disappearance. It would be a logical place for the killer to dump the body, thereby framing Scott. In fact, that was Geragos argument, but the jury didn't buy it.

I thought Geragos did an admirable job of refuting the prosecution's circumstantial evidence.

Also, the prosecution changed its motive theory repeatedly. First it was money, then it was Amber, then it was loving the bachelor life.


Charlottesville, Va.: Will Peterson be given the option of any type of death, or are there regulations? Could he, for instance, choose hanging, or a firing squad?

Jeralyn Merritt: Yes, he can choose between lethal injection and the death penalty. If he does not choose, execution will be by lethal injuction.


Washington, D.C.: So how many years will it be before Peterson is executed?

Jeralyn Merritt: It will be a very long time before Scott Peterson is executed. He may wait 5 years to be appointed a lawyer to file his first appeal to the California Supreme Court. This appeal is mandatory.

A big reason for the delays is that there are too few lawyers willing to volunteer for the relatively low-paying job of representing death row inmates, and there are a lot of inmates. There are currently estimated to be 120 other death row inmates in California without lawyers. Lawyers will be assigned to them before Scott.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you think Peterson will ever confess?

Jeralyn Merritt: No, I don't think he will ever confess. I think he will continue to assert his innocence.


Washington, D.C.: People keep saying Peterson will be killed while in jail. Will he be among other prisoners or isolated, in solitary or something else? They've mentioned that he might have an hour of exercise out in the yard where someone might take an opportunity. What do you say about this?

Jeralyn Merritt: San Quentin officials have said that after the initial adjustment period, Scott will have his own cell, he will be allowed outside in the prison yard for up to five hours a day and he will be offered three showers a week. Meals will be given at the same hours three times a day.

He has been a model prisoner to date in both county jails in which he has been incarcerated, and he can work his way up to slightly better conditions at San Quentin.

He will not be in the general population.


Dublin, Ohio: The very first question of how long to expect S.P. to be alive before his execution is carried out was never answered. Could it possibly be 10 years? Look how long Ted Bundy was alive before they finally cooked him, but that was Florida.

Jeralyn Merritt: Of the 38 states with the death penalty, California moves the slowest toward executions. It could easily be 10 years, it could also be 20. This is not due to the number of appeals he will be allowed, but to the lack of available counsel. Only 11 persons have been executed in California since the state resumed executions in 1978 and there are more than 600 on death row.


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Do you agree with the verdict? Do you think he's guilty?

Jeralyn Merritt: I have no idea if he is guilty or not, but I don't think the state proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.


Washington, D.C.: Can we infer from the judge's decision anything about the strength of the prosecution's argument, or the likelihood of Peterson's culpability? In his statement the judge apparently mentioned that the court is satisfied that Peterson was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Obviously that's what the jury found, but, are there cases in which the jury would be satisfied, and the "court" would not be, and as a result sentence to life only?

Jeralyn Merritt: Yes, there could be instances in which the jury would find guilt and order a death sentence sentence and a judge might view the case differently. In Mark Geragos motion for new trial, which was denied today, one of the grounds was insufficiency of evidence and he asked the judge to "sit as a 13th juror" and not impose death.


Washington, D.C.: Regarding the length of time Peterson spends in prison before being executed: You said that only 11 prisoners have been executed since 1992 (13 years). With that amounting to less than one a year, and there being 600+ prisoners on death row currently, then would it be far-fetched to say that Peterson may have effectively been given "a life sentence" rather than the death penalty? I assume there have been cases of older inmates dying before they can be executed, but has it ever happened with a younger inmate? In summation, given the waiting time, is there even such a thing as the "death penalty" as we know it in California?

Jeralyn Merritt: A December, 2004 editorial in the Los Angeles Times says that California restored its death penalty in 1978 and that since then only 10 (now 11) have been killed. It opines that it may be decades before Scott Peterson is executed, so yes, it could mean he has a life sentence.

The Times also says that one estimate shows that it costs California taxpayers $90 million a year more to house prisoners sentenced to death than it does to house prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment.


Adelphi, Md.: What are some other issues he will raise on appeal?

Jeralyn Merritt: He will argue that the Judge erred in allowing jurors to consider that Peterson was "in flight" from justice when he was caught near the Mexican border with $15,000 cash.
Also, that the trial should have been held in Los Angeles rather than San Mateo and he did not get a fair trial there due to the overwhelming prejudicial publicity. He will argue that two jurors were impermissibly removed. That dog tracking evidence should not have been admitted.

Also, he will argue that prosecutors withheld critical evidence.


Washington, D.C.: The juror with the dyed "red" hair ... She was very vocal and indicated that she was glad Peterson got the sentence and so was another male juror. Is it proper conduct for the jurors to come streaming out of court and offering up their opinions to the LIVE world press? Doesn't this prejudice things still affect the case somehow?

Jeralyn Merritt: These jurors couldn't wait to get on tv and tell their stories. I wouldn't be surprised to see some of them writing books about the experience.

They were allowed to hold a press conference after their verdict.


Silver Spring, Md.: Is it possible for outsiders to send Scott letters to prison if they should choose to?

Jeralyn Merritt: Yes, Scott Peterson can receive letters. You can find the address at the Web site for the California Department of Corrections. Your letters will probably be read by prison staff. Also, it may be that during the initial evaluating phase which might be between 10 and 45 days, they will not provide him with his mail.


Boyds, Md.: Are you surprised that the judge accepted the jury's death sentence given that the conviction relied so heavily on circumstantial evidence? Also, in your experience does a witness like Amber Frey always have such a high-powered attorney during legal proceedings?

Jeralyn Merritt: Witnesses like Amber Frey usually don't need a lawyer at all. They are witnesses, not parties to the action. However, this was a very high profile case and Gloria Allred did a great job for her. She changed Amber's look and ultimately, through her careful strategic advice, Amber was looked upon favorably in the court of opinion.

Amber got a very good book deal, and Gloria arranged it. Her fee may have been paid from the proceeds.

But Amber was not the victim in the case. Laci was the victim.


New York, N.Y.: Can Scott Peterson be interviewed by Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric while he's in prison?

Jeralyn Merritt: That will depend on the rules at San Quentin. Other death row inmates have been allowed such interviews. Larry King interviewed Karla Faye Tucker. Geraldo interviewed Gary Graham.


Washington, D.C.: What happens between now and when he reports for prison? And when does he have to report?

Jeralyn Merritt: He will be taken to San Quentin within 48 hours. Probably, San Quentin will send special security officers to get him due to the high profile nature of the case.


McLean, Va.: What is your guesstimate as to how the general public is divided with the sentencing? Do most people think he did it or do most people think he didn't? Is there survey information?

Jeralyn Merritt: There is no scientific polling. The court of public opinion has always thought he was guilty. As to the sentence he should receive, I would guess that those who believe he's guilty think he should get the death penalty, provided they are not morally opposed to the death penalty.


Washington, D.C.: We didn't see Scott Peterson on video today. Will we physically see him anytime soon?

Jeralyn Merritt: I wouldn't be surprised if the media camps out at San Quentin hoping for a glimpse. Don't hold your breath though, they have ways to take him in and out of secure entrances.

If San Quentin allows him to be interviewed and photographed, that is when you will see him again.


Houston, Tex.: Is no prior criminal record a statutory mitigator in California, and, if so, can a judge simply (as I heard it reported in this case) accord it 'no weight'? Does he not thereby render the mitigator meaningless?

Jeralyn Merritt: Yes, the jury could consider his lack of prior criminal record as a mitigating factor. Since he was sentenced to death, it obviously wasn't enough.


Herndon, Va: Thank you for taking the time to educate people about this case beyond the sensationalist headlines. I was lucky enough to have had a chance to work on death penalty cases in law school and my first- hand experience totally changed my mind about capital punishment.

The thing that jumps out at me from this case is the totally arbitrary decision to seek the death penalty at all in this case. As much as I dislike the person portrayed by the media as Scott Peterson, I think his sentence is overblown. How much did both the media coverage and California's desire to counter allegations of racial bias in capital punishment cases factor in to the decision to make this a capital case?

Jeralyn Merritt: I think media bias was a big factor in the case. The scenes of crowds cheering about the death verdict outside the courthouse were just awful.


College Park, Md.: Can the jurors accept money from people wanting to get their stories?

Jeralyn Merritt: Yes. 90 days after the verdict, jurors are free to accept gifts and money for information about the case.


Jeralyn Merritt: Thank you all for participating. This is a sad day for Laci and Scott's families. It is a sad day for Scott Peterson. The case will continue and it will be years before there is a final conclusion. There are no winners here.


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