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Infamous Crimes: Laci Peterson’s Murder Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 28th, 2021

History of the crime

Laci Peterson, a 27-year-old wife who was eight months pregnant, disappeared on Christmas Eve, prompting a nationwide search. But when the bodies of the Modesto, Calif., woman and her unborn child were found four months later, her husband, Scott, was charged with two counts of murder. Scott Peterson is supposed to be cradling his infant in the baby blue nursery he renovated for the boy. Instead, he sits in a drab jail cell charged with murdering his pregnant wife and their unborn son. The happy life Peterson, a handsome 30-year-old fertilizer salesman, seemed destined to have will never come.

His vivacious wife is dead, the child he appeared eager to raise is gone, and Peterson’s future may include death row. Prosecutors say Peterson killed his college sweetheart wife, Laci, a 27-year-old substitute teacher who was about a month away from delivering their first child, dumped her body in the ocean and then told her family and police detectives that she had simply vanished from the Peterson insists he is innocent and has no idea what became of his wife.

His supporters maintain that the police investigators decided early on that he was the culprit and refused to examine other leads in the case. Media outlets across the country were drawn to the story of the pregnant woman with the bright smile who vanished on Christmas Eve. Even during the war in Iraq, the search for her and the ultimate arrest of Scott Peterson led the news. From the start, public suspicion fell on her husband. Scott Peterson told detectives that he had last seen his wife on Dec. 24 at 9:30 a.m. when he left their home in the La Loma neighborhood of Modesto for a solo fishing trip in Berkeley, about an hour and a half drive away.

Laci, he said, had plans to go grocery shopping and then walk their golden retriever in nearby East La Loma Park. But when he returned home that night, she was gone. Her cell phone and purse were still in the house, and a neighbor said she had spotted the couple’s dog running loose at 10 a.m. and locked him in the Peterson’s gated backyard. Police searched the park, but saw no sign of Laci Peterson. Meanwhile, relatives and friends posted fliers and organized search parties.

Volunteers joined with officers in helicopters, on horseback and in boats. Thousands of concerned citizens combed the city of Modesto and then fanned out across central and northern California, looking in drainage ditches, rivers and farms for any sign of the missing woman. Within days, the family had raised a $500,000 reward, but there was still no sign of Laci. The district attorney has said he intends to seek the death penalty. “Christmas is over for us,” Laci’s older brother, Brent, said after three-days of fruitless searching. “We all feel empty and want our sister returned.” Police were convinced early on that Laci Peterson had met with foul play.

A bloodhound’s handler told authorities that his dogs were indicating she left her home in a vehicle, not on foot. And Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha, ruled out any voluntary departure. She had talked to her daughter by phone the evening of Dec. 23 and said Laci seemed fine. She would never just walk away from her life, she assured officers. She was too excited about the baby, which she and Scott had already named Conner, and too happy in her marriage.

Scott Peterson rarely spoke publicly about his wife’s disappearance. He was too upset, Laci’s brother explained at the time. In many early television interviews, Scott Peterson’s parents stood with Rocha, her husband and other children. Together, they dismissed any suggestion that Scott was involved. “There’s no possibility that he would be involved,” said Peterson’s mother, Jacqueline. “They were like honeymooners even after being married five years. They doted on each other. We all wanted to be like them.” But even if relatives did not consider Peterson a suspect, the police had not eliminated him. Just two days after Laci vanished; crime scene investigators searched the couple’s home.

The next day, they searched the warehouse Scott Peterson used for his business and took two computers from the family home. They also seized the SUV Laci drove and Peterson’s pickup truck. On Jan. 2, they asked for the public’s help to verify Peterson’s alibi. He had produced receipts related to his trip, but police asked anyone who had seen him fishing or at the marina to contact them. About three weeks into the investigation, police shared suspicions with Laci’s mother, siblings and stepfather that fractured the relationship with Scott Peterson and his family. Peterson, the detectives told the Rochas, had been having an affair with another woman and had taken a $250,000 life insurance policy out on his wife.

Peterson gave a rare interview to call the allegations “a pack of lies,” but a massage therapist from Fresno named Amber Frey stepped forward and identified herself as the other woman. She told reporters that Peterson presented himself as single when they met the previous November. “When I discovered he was involved in the Laci Peterson disappearance case, I immediately contacted the Modesto Police Department,” said Frey, a 28-year-old single mother of a 2-year-old.

In the wake of Frey’s disclosure, there were more damaging reports. The Modesto Bee noted that Scott Peterson had laughed and smiled during a vigil for Laci. He had traded in Laci’s SUV to pay for a truck to replace the one seized by police, and there were reports he was contacting real estate agents about selling the house. One neighbor reportedly told police she had seen Peterson loading something heavy into his truck around the time Laci vanished.

Another said she found it strange that the Petersons’ drapes remained closed Christmas Eve morning. Days later, Peterson broke his virtual silence with several television interviews acknowledging the affair, but denying it had anything to do with his wife’s disappearance. He said the couple had a “glorious” marriage, and his wife knew about Frey and had made her peace with the relationship. “It wasn’t anything that would break us apart,” he told Diane Sawyer on ABC. He also offered explanations for some of the reports implicating him. He said he and Laci bought life insurance policies on each other two years before she went missing. He claimed that Laci left the drapes pulled Christmas Eve morning because the house was cold, and said the items a neighbor saw him loading into the back of his truck might have been umbrellas he used for work.

Laci’s delivery date, Feb. 10, came and went without any news of her whereabouts. About a month later, authorities said the missing person investigation had become a homicide case. On April 13, the body of a full-term baby washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay near Richmond. The next day, a dog walker found the badly decomposed body of a woman. The area where both bodies were found was about three miles from the marina where Peterson said he was fishing.

The coroner could not determine the cause of death, but DNA tests proved the bodies were Laci Peterson and her son. The child, experts said, could have been pushed from his mother’s body by gases created in the decomposition process. Before the DNA test results were even announced, police arrested Scott Peterson at a golf course near his parents’ home in San Diego County. Law enforcement officials noted that Peterson had lightened his brown hair to a reddish-blond, grown a goatee and was carrying $10,000 in cash, the maximum amount of cash that can be brought across the nearby Mexican border without notifying officials.

He pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder, one for his wife and one for his son. Under California law, a fetus over the age of seven weeks can be considered a murder victim. The double-murder charge means Peterson could face the death penalty if convicted. Other than saying that the murder took place on Dec. 23 or 24, prosecutors in the case are keeping a tight lid on their case. During the investigation, police took biological samples from Scott Peterson, sent materials to the state crime lab for testing, and seized 90 bags of evidence from his home alone, but precisely what police were looking for is being kept under seal. Still, California Attorney General bill Lockyer called the case a “slam dunk.”

Peterson’s lawyers have said little about their still nascent case, but his parents have suggested the police department was blind to other suspects or theories. “They worked strictly on a theory that was dreamt up by this lead detective within the first eight hours, and they’ve pursued it backward from there and they have neglected so many good leads,” Peterson’s father, Lee, told Time. His parents say that among the 9,000 tips police fielded in the case were sightings of Laci Peterson long after Dec. 23.

The psychology and sociology of the crime

The prosecution’s case

In a nutshell, prosecutors say Scott Peterson murdered Laci on Dec. 23 or 24, 2002, and dumped her body into San Francisco Bay from his small fishing boat. Peterson’s attorney, Mark Geragos, argues Laci was alive when Scott left early Dec. 24 to go fishing; when he returned, she was gone. The only significant physical evidence prosecutors presented at Scott Peterson’s preliminary hearing required them to fight for its admission: a 6-inch strand of dark hair on a pair of pliers police found in Scott Peterson’s boat.

Mitochondrial DNA molecules — the only kind of sample recoverable from a single strand of hair –is rarely used in California trials because it can’t specifically identify a person, as can he nuclear DNA molecules more often used in court. It can show only a statistical likelihood of identification and rule out others. So Scott Peterson’s lawyer tried to have the hair DNA evidence excluded as unreliable because the statistics used to determine a likely match are based on a faulty database.

But a judge ruled prosecutors will be able to tell jurors it’s likely that the mitochondrial DNA taken from the hair could be found in one out of every 112 white people. And even if jurors believe the hair is Laci’s, Levenson asked, “So what? There are so many ways that hairs get transferred, it’s one of the easiest types of forensic evidence to be transferred.” For example, maybe Scott brought the pliers to the boat from his house or car, where they’d picked up a wayward strand of Laci’s hair.

Then again, Anderson asked, “If it’s so inconsequential, why is Geragos trying to get it suppressed?” Among other testimony given at the preliminary hearing was that of a computer forensic investigator who said Scott Peterson on Dec. 8, 2002, had downloaded information from the Internet about Northern California bodies of water including San Francisco Bay and Modesto-area lakes. The download included data on the Bay’s currents, although the investigator acknowledged it could have been linked to sport fishing Web sites Scott visited.

The other woman

Det. Al Brocchini testified Amber Frey, with whom Scott had begun an affair in November, was told by Scott on Dec. 9 that he had “lost his wife,” and that 2002 would be his first holiday season without her. That same day, Scott bought his boat with 14 $100 bills, according to testimony from the seller. Laci’s sister testified that Scott said he had golf plans on Christmas Eve; he claimed he went fishing that day.

A detective testified officers found a loaded gun in Peterson’s truck and that he initially denied having an extramarital affair. Police searching the Petersons’ home said the clothes Scott had worn the day Laci disappeared were found in the washing machine; he explained he’d washed his clothes and taken a shower after returning from his fishing trip. In the boat, police found a homemade anchor made from cement put in a bucket with hook made o reinforcing bar, Brocchini said.

Another detective testified police found what seemed to be spilled cement powder and five clear patches in the Modesto warehouse Scott used for work, and where he stored his boat — evidence that Scott might have made more of those anchors, but which were never found. Brocchini testified that a San Diego man who sold Scott a car shortly before his arrest said Scott paid with 36 $100 bills, and used his mother’s name in filling out the forms.

When the man asked Peterson about the name, “He said that was the name his parents had given him, kind of a ‘Boy Named Sue’ kind of thing,” Brocchini testified. A forensic pathologist testified that Laci’s body had been in the water for months before it was found, and that the unborn child’s body probably wasn’t separated from hers for more than a “couple of days.” That conflicts with a theory offered earlier that perhaps Laci had been the victim of a satanic cult that had cut her unborn child from her body. Passersby found Laci Peterson’s badly decomposed body April 14 among the rocks at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline south of Richmond; missing were her head, hands, feet and part of her left leg.

The baby’s relatively well-preserved body had been found the day before just more than mile north in marshy grassland, about 15 feet inland from the shoreline, authorities said. The bodies were found a few miles from the Berkeley Marina, from which Scott said he’d gone out fishing hours before reporting his wife missing. Police arrested Peterson on April 18 in San Diego, about 30 miles from the Mexican border –he’d grown a beard, dyed his hair blond and had with him his brother’s identification and $10,000 in cash. Police said they nabbed him hours before DNA tests confirmed the bodies’ identities because they feared he would flee.

These facts and others, taken together, seem to form a pattern that’s unfavorable to Scott Peterson’s defense. But consider what prosecutors don’t have: a crime scene, a murder weapon or a cause of death. Any lawyer will tell you it’s not easy to prove someone killed someone without knowing where or how, and a forensic pathologist has testified he found no gunshot wounds or other marks on Laci’s body that would help determine the cause of her death. There’s been no testimony that the Petersons had any drug, domestic violence or financial troubles.

Laci’s Autopsy Report Destroys Scott’s Defense

by Don Gentile and Michael Hanrahan

The Autopsy Report

Name: Peterson, Laci aka: Doe Jane Date 04/14/03 Time: 1830 Hrs

Finish Time: 2200 hrs.

Place of Death: Richmond, California

Age: Sex: Female Race: Caucasian

Autopsy Diagnoses

  1. Female body with:
    1. Absence of each radius, each ulna and both hands.
    2. Absence of both feet and left tibia and fibula.
    3. Absence of head and cervical vertebrae 1-6.
    4. Absence of thoracoabdominal viscera.
  2. Gravid uterus: fetus, placenta and the umbilical cord absent, with opening near fundus. Cervix intact and closed.
  3. Extensive changes of immersion, postmortem animal feeding, tidal effect and decomposition, estimated postmortem interval: months
  4. Multiple rib fractures (left 5 and 6, right 9).

The report states that Laci’s head was gone as well as cervical (neck) vertebrae (numbers) 1-6.

Dr. Spitz said this is another indication Laci was not beheaded. “The sixth vertebra is down on the neck between the shoulder blades, not a spot where it’s easy to cut someone’s head off.”

Laci’s body was also missing the right foot and the left leg below the knee, as well as all the major organs of the chest and abdominal cavity- and the lungs, heart, bowels, liver and spleen, according to the report.

Laci still had her uterus but there was an opening near the top part of it. Her cervix was “intact and closed.” This means the unborn child did not emerge from the birth canal but from that opening near the top of the uterus,” said Dr. Spitz.

Decomposition of Laci’s body was the most likely cause of the opening, not a knife as some news reports have claimed. “The uterus is the last part of a woman’s body to decompose, so it would protect the unborn child until the last,” said Spitz. “That’s why the infant’s remains were in better condition than his mother.”

Laci also had fractures to the 5th and 6th ribs on the left side of her body and the 9th rib on her right side. “If you draw a straight line from the fractured ribs on the left to the fractured rib on the right, you get a steep angle downward,” said Dr. Spitz. “I’ve seen wounds like this. They are caused by boat propeller blades- not satanic cults!”

Is the crime on the rise or decline?

Possible explanations

Scott’s claim that he’d been fishing in San Francisco Bay the day Laci disappeared was publicized within days; his lawyer could argue that if someone else took and killed her, the killer could have dumped the body in the Bay to cast suspicion on Scott. Scott was arrested about 30 miles from the Mexican border, but also only about 14 miles from his parents’ home in Solana Beach. And perhaps he changed his appearance in order to dodge the tireless publicity already surrounding the case. So these and many other things can be explained away.

Yet Scott so far hasn’t helped himself by speaking publicly about the case, Levenson said. “I think only Michael Jackson could give him a run for his money” in being deemed his own worst enemy, she said. “His emotional responses seemed contrived, his behavior seemed contradictory.” He’s under no obligation, however, to take the witness stand in his own defense and subject himself to prosecutors’ cross-examination. “I’d be fairly confident they (Peterson’s attorneys) haven’t made their mind up yet” about putting him on the stand, Levenson said. “It comes down to whose credibility they (the jurors) believe, what they see as reasonable doubt,” she said.

Ernest Spokes, a former Stanislaus County prosecutor now in private practice in Modesto as a criminal defense attorney, said he’s struck by the fact that a cadaver dog used by police showed only “mild interest” in Scott’s boat. “That’s supposed to be where she traveled the last four miles of her life, either dead or alive,” he said, adding that no matter where she was killed, “you can’t get around the last four miles (to the middle of the San Francisco Bay.)

He couldn’t have taken her out there in the truck.” Like Levenson and Anderson, Spokes believes as-yet-unseen evidence from the wiretapped conversations between Scott and Amber Frey will play a big part at the trial. “She was on the phone with him constantly, and they’ve only released the one conversation, which was damaging enough to Scott — there’s got to be more in there,” Spokes said. “A man in heat makes mistakes, and the odds that he slipped up are very possible.” So I would imagine Amber will play a big part in this case, but from both sides…. I’m aware the defense is not going to treat Ms. Frey as the gentle angel she’s being presented as by Ms. (Gloria) Allred (Frey’s attorney.) She’s got a few skeletons in her closet, too.”

Juror strategies

It could take months for attorneys to have hundreds of potential jurors from San Mateo County fill out questionnaires, question people individually and decide who they do and don’t want on the panel. Both sides have hired renowned consultants to help them find jurors likely to sympathize with their arguments. For the prosecution, it’s Howard Varinsky of Emeryville, who consulted with prosecutors in the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

For Peterson, it’s Jo-Ellan Dimitrius of Pasadena, who consulted with the defense attorneys for O.J. Simpson. Sanford Marks a Miami-based trial consultant who worked opposite Varinsky on the McVeigh case and whose other high-profile cases include the defenses of sportscaster Marv Albert and political scion William Kennedy Smith — said Varinsky probably will “look for people who have high morals let’s face it, Scott Peterson is not a poster boy for marriage.” Prosecutors will want “people who are able to look at this case and possibly be swayed somewhat by the horrific nature of the alleged crime,” Marks said.

The defense, on the other hand, wants people “who have the intellect to put aside emotion and decide a case based on the reasonable doubt of the evidence, because there is no evidence there’s no gun, there’s no eyewitness,” he said. “Nobody knows what happened or who did it.” Defense attorney Geragos will hammer away with that reasonable doubt defense, Marks said, “and it takes a special kind of juror to understand that the guy (Peterson) is not the brightest star on the planet and he’s done things that maybe they don’t agree with, but nonetheless, the state didn’t prove its case. “I’m sure that Jo-Ellan is looking for people who distrust government, who are smart enough to separate reason from emotion and who don’t go fishing,” Marks quipped, adding he believes the case’s extensive publicity will make it especially hard to find such jurors. “This guy (Peterson) has some serious problems, and if Jo-Ellan can pull this off with a jury, God bless her.”

Is the crime common or unusual?

Bad signs

Though many of these studies are broken down by race and class, Dr. Judith McFarlane says intimate partner abuse and homicide is not a lower-class issue. “A woman with more resources and money may have more options, but it doesn’t make her any less of a target,” said McFarlane, a professor at Texas Woman’s University who conducted a study correlating abuse during pregnancy and homicide. Her research found that domestic violence was the leading indicator for homicide among pregnant woman.

“We as a society don’t hold men accountable for their violent actions,” McFarlane said. “To prosecute someone through our courts often takes more time than the victims of domestic violence can afford to spend waiting for action to happen.” McFarlane said the recent passage of Laci and Connor’s bill, which makes it a federal capital offense to murder a fetus, and the correlating publicity to Scott Peterson’s murder trial helps send a clear message. “Before, the legal waters were very murky when it came to the murder of an unborn child,” she said. “Now the law is clear and the Peterson trial publicity makes the extent of that law very clear.”

Brown said the bigger problem is that women often don’t come forward until it is too late. “Men who cross the line to murder their pregnant wives and girlfriends show signs of being psychopathic long before the murder,” she said. She added that women often rush into relationships out a desire for companionship and then choose to remain in them, even after it becomes obvious that the relationship is troubled, often “explaining away” less than honorable behavior for the same reasons. “Women should be even more cautious about getting pregnant with any man who exhibits a lack of concern for her happiness and well being, is manipulative, is a pathological liar, exhibits grandiose thinking, and has a history of dishonesty.”

Can the crime be prevented?

Yes this crime can be prevented because the Laic is pretty, nice lady and true love for his family. But the main fault is of Scott who had an affair with the lady Amber if Scott had control on him than this crime doesn’t happen. Or if Scott has a talk with laic then also they could find out the right solution. There were some points shown below by which this crime can be prevented:

Too many unkept promises

He promised to show that Conner Peterson, the couple’s son to be, was born alive — the implication being that Laci Peterson was kidnapped and gave birth weeks after she was last seen around Christmas Eve, 2002. But a crucial medical witness failed to deliver the promised knockout. “I’m sure he regrets all the things he said he was going to prove and couldn’t,” said attorney Steve Cron, who has represented comedian Paula Pound stone and other celebrities.

He called Geragos a “fine lawyer,” but added “he stuck his neck out, and in a high-publicity case everything you do is scrutinized.” Still, jurors, who felt enough of a connection to call Geragos “Mr. G,” gave him high marks. “I respect Mr. G. I think he’s a great lawyer,” said juror Richelle Nice. It was the facts of the case, she suggested, that conspired against Geragos. The bodies washed up near where Peterson told police he had been fishing alone, and the husband who should have been grieving was instead calling his mistress and becoming increasingly detached from his in-laws.

References

External links

  1. Conner Peterson at Find A Grave.
  2. CNN: Larry King Live Panel Discusses Laci Peterson Case.
  3. CNN.com January 12, 2003 article Detectives Search near Bay for Missing Pregnant Woman.
  4. LaciPeterson.com.
  5. Laci Peterson Case Information.
  6. The Laci Peterson Case.
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