Peterson pleads innocent in killings

California man could face death penalty in slayings of his wife and unborn son

April 22, 2003|By Christine Hanley and Dan Morain | Christine Hanley and Dan Morain,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MODESTO, Calif. - Scott Peterson pleaded innocent yesterday to charges that he killed his pregnant wife Laci and unborn son, a crime prosecutors now say they believe took place in the couple's Modesto, Calif., home in the days just before Christmas.

"I am not guilty," a cleanly shaven Peterson said after Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ashley read the charges against him, which could lead to the death penalty.

In documents filed yesterday with the complaint, police allege that Peterson killed his wife, who was eight months' pregnant, at their home Dec. 23 or 24. Prosecutors did not reveal what led them to that conclusion or whether they have determined a motive for the killing.

Hours after the arraignment, Laci Peterson's family, which had spent Easter weekend in seclusion, made a wrenching appearance before reporters. Her mother, Sharon Rocha, said she had lost her "best friend."

"I can only hope that the sound of Laci's voice begging for her life, and for the life of her unborn child, is heard over and over and over again in the mind of that person every day for the rest of his life," Rocha said, her voice choked with emotion. She and other family members never mentioned Scott Peterson by name.

The defendant's parents visited him in the Stanislaus County Jail and emerged to tell reporters that they believe he is wrongly accused.

"My son is innocent, and it is going to come out," said his father, Lee Peterson. "I am confident of that."

Scott Peterson was arrested Friday in his car near San Diego, shortly before law enforcement authorities had confirmed that the bodies of a woman and full-term fetus that had washed ashore in San Francisco Bay were Laci Peterson and the couple's unborn son, Conner.

The bodies were found a day apart less than four miles from the spot where Peterson told police he had embarked on a fishing trip on Christmas Eve, leaving his wife at their modest bungalow home.

The 30-year-old fertilizer salesman was led in and out of the courtroom in a red jumpsuit, the color reserved for the most violent prisoners, his wrists chained in front. He was being kept in isolation because other prisoners have threatened him.

The two families - once united in the initial search for Laci after she was reported missing by her stepfather on Christmas Eve - sat across the aisle from each other in the front row.

Laci's family broke their staunch support of their son-in-law after it was revealed that Peterson had an extramarital affair. The woman came forward to say he told her he was not married.

In court, Scott's mother, Jackie Peterson, and Laci's mother wept throughout the proceeding. Before the hearing, Jackie Peterson went over to Rocha and leaned over to hug her. Rocha hesitated at first, but then returned the embrace.

"I told her how sorry I was for their loss," Jackie Peterson said later. "It was our loss, too."

The gesture was an awkward moment during an emotional day for both families, each of which was escorted out of back doors of the courthouse by deputy sheriffs, to avoid the media swarm.

Hours later at the Modesto Police Station, Laci's family and friends appeared before scores of reporters.

"Laci and her unborn child did not deserve to die," Rocha said. "They certainly did not deserve to be dumped in the bay and sent to a watery grave as though their lives were meaningless."

Whoever committed the killings, Rocha said, should be "punished for the tragedy and devastation forced upon so many people."

Rocha's husband, Ron Grantski, told reporters that the family is withholding comments about Peterson to help ensure he receives a fair trial: "We owe it to Laci to let the courts bring the facts out. I'm not going to say anything that could jeopardize the hard work of so many men and women."

Grantski said Peterson's parents "don't deserve this. But Laci and our family don't either."

District Attorney James Brazelton said the trial likely will not take place for a "couple of years." The preliminary hearing, at which the prosecution presents its evidence, may not occur until midsummer.

On Friday, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said he believes the prosecution will be a "slam dunk." Yesterday, Brazelton declined to discuss the evidence, including what, if any, murder weapon was used. As for Lockyer's comments, which drew ire from Peterson's parents, the county prosecutor said he didn't know "what the attorney general was thinking."

Although prosecutors have not yet said if they will seek the death penalty, the double homicide has been classified as a capital case.

A bail hearing is scheduled for May 6, although Peterson would be ineligible for bail if the court rules that the capital murder charge is justified.

Christine Hanley and Dan Morain write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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