REDWOOD CITY, Calif., Aug. 10 -- For the past 10 weeks, prosecutors here have tried to paint a picture of Scott Peterson as a cold-blooded killer who murdered his pregnant wife, Laci, and dumped her body in the San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002.
The fertilizer salesman was obsessed with his mistress and wanted to escape his marriage and increasing debt, and he saw getting rid of his wife as the solution to his problems, they have told jurors. Peterson, 31, who maintains his innocence, has told police he was on a fishing trip when his wife disappeared. If convicted, he could get the death penalty.
The case, breaking during the Christmas holiday when there can be a dearth of news, turned the story into a 24-hour media extravaganza. Local newscasts led with daily updates on the search for Laci Peterson and her unborn son. Cable news networks brought in legal experts and criminal psychologists. Tabloid covers were splashed with pictures of the Petersons in happier times. The coverage was intensified in April 2003 when the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son washed ashore.
The coverage has been less breathless as the trial ensues in this community midway between San Francisco and San Jose. But interest has not lessened: 252 people lined up for 28 public spectator seats Tuesday morning. "I want to see him fry. . . . I don't want to see another O. J.," said Peggy Hopp, 58, referring to O. J. Simpson, who was acquitted in 1995 of murdering his wife. The retired bookkeeper, who lives near here, waited in line with her sister but did not get into the courtroom.
The trial was halted last week after new evidence that defense lawyer Mark J. Geragos said was "potentially exculpatory" was tested. Sources close to the investigation have told reporters here that the new material includes a piece of plastic sheeting and duct tape that were found in the bay near where Laci Peterson's body surfaced. Testimony resumed Tuesday with no public explanation of the evidence; lawyers on both sides are under a gag order.
Those following the case were awaiting the start of Tuesday's testimony of massage therapist Amber Frey, who dated Scott Peterson while his wife was alive. Frey has said she did not know he was married until after authorities began looking for Laci Peterson.
Frey testified Tuesday that on their first date, Peterson lavished her with champagne and strawberries, and that they ended up sleeping together at a hotel. Several weeks into their relationship, a tearful Peterson told her he had lied about not being married and "that he had lost his wife," Frey said. The conversation took place Dec. 9, 2002, she said.
In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer last year, Peterson said his wife knew about his affair with Frey and that the couple was working through it. "It wasn't anything that would break us apart," he said.
Frey started dating Peterson a month before his wife disappeared. After publicity about Laci Peterson's disappearance, Frey went to authorities.
Working with the police, Frey secretly recorded hundreds of phone conversations she had with Peterson while the search for his wife continued. Prosecutors played several tapes Tuesday, including one in which Scott Peterson claimed to be in Paris celebrating New Year's when he actually was in Modesto while local citizens were preparing for a candlelight vigil for Laci Peterson.
Prosecutors are expected to play more of the tapes during Frey's testimony, which is expected to last as long as two weeks.
The story of the substitute teacher who vanished from her middle-class Modesto neighborhood captured the public's attention. The Petersons were college sweethearts who were anticipating their first child. Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant. The nursery was ready; they had already picked the name Conner.
Scott Peterson and Laci's family told authorities on Christmas Eve 2002 that she was missing. Thousands of Modesto citizens rallied around the family, combing nearby neighborhoods, searching empty warehouses, drainage ditches and alleys. Officers in helicopters, on horseback and in boats canvassed the area for months.
As suspicion surrounding Scott Peterson intensified, satellite trucks and news vans crammed the sidewalks in front of the Petersons' home. Rows of cameras were pointed at the front door, recording Peterson's every move. Two radio disc jockeys arrived from Los Angeles with a bullhorn and screamed at Peterson from the sidewalk to admit to the murders.
Such media activity is based on a desire for ratings, not a desire to report on newsworthy events, said Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication.
"Whether Scott Peterson is ultimately found guilty or innocent has very little impact on our lives," Saltzman said. "We now live in a global community. Because of the media, everybody is now our neighbor, and we've always been interested in finding out about our neighbor's dirty laundry. It's human nature to be curious."
Last April, the body of a baby boy washed ashore in San Francisco Bay. The next day, the decomposed body of a woman was discovered a short distance away, a few miles from the marina where Peterson said he had been fishing.
Scott Peterson was arrested at a San Diego-area golf course near his parent's house even before DNA results confirmed the bodies were Laci and Conner. He was carrying $15,000, his brother's driver's license and camping gear. He had dyed his hair and grown a goatee.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer called the case a "slam-dunk." But prosecutors, who have had to rely heavily on circumstantial evidence, have suffered a series of setbacks, including the admission by a Modesto police detective that he omitted evidence in a report. Another detective revealed that the plastic pitcher prosecutors said Peterson used to mold the cement anchors that sank Laci's body into the bay did not fit the anchors.
Defense lawyers accuse police of conducting a sloppy investigation.
Even as the trial continued, a new case occupied the cable news networks: Another pregnant wife dead and another husband charged, this time in Salt Lake City. Police on Monday accused Mark Hacking, 28, of murdering his wife, Lori, 27, whose body has not been found.