Case Study: Laci Peterson & the Unborn Victims of Violence Act

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia has a BSChE. She's an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting.

Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when she was murdered by her husband Scott Peterson. As a result of the murder, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act was passed in 2004. This lesson will discuss the murder case and the passing of this act.

The Murder

On the morning of December 24th, 2002, Laci Peterson went out to walk her dog in East La Loma Park of Modesto, California. She was 27 years old and eight months pregnant. Later on in the day, her dog was found with his leash still on, roaming alone near their house.

Her husband, Scott Peterson, had gone fishing. When he arrived back home, Laci was not there. He called his mother-in-law. Laci was not at her mother's home, either. Night was falling. Soon thereafter, her stepfather called 911 to report her as a missing person.

The 2003 New Year came and went, and still, Laci was not found. Then one day in April, some people strolling by the ocean found the decomposed bodies of Laci Peterson and the unborn child, Connor, and so began the investigation of a tragic murder.

The Arrest And Trial

Scott Peterson, Laci's husband, was arrested on April 18th, 2003. He was arraigned on April 21st and charged with the murder of both Laci and the infant son.

The ensuing trial lasted over five months, and at least 184 witnesses gave their testimony. During the trial, three of the jurors were replaced by Judge Delucchi. One of these jurors had done independent research on the case, which was against the rules of the court. The jury foreman was also replaced.

After the months of testimony, the jury deliberations went on for seven days before a verdict was finally reached. Scott Peterson was found guilty of first degree and second degree murder for the murder of Laci Peterson and the unborn baby, Connor.

The Defense

During the beginnings of the trial, the defense attorney, Mark Geragos, used Laci's family members and Scott Peterson's father to testify in his defense. The evidence that had been collected thus far was circumstantial, or indirect, and the father said that Scott was an enthusiastic fisherman, so buying the large fishing boat that he'd recently purchased was not out of character. However, after the media leaked that Scott was having an affair with Amber Frey, his massage therapist, Laci's family withdrew their support of Scott and the position of the defense became much more precarious.

The Prosecution

The prosecuting attorney, Rick Distaso, believed and tried to prove that Scott Peterson planned the murder of his pregnant wife well in advance of actually carrying it out. He believed the fishing boat was purchased to dump Laci's body in the San Francisco Bay. The prosecution also thought that Scott Peterson bought a bag of cement with the intention of using it to create anchors to prevent the body from floating to the surface.

The Evidence

As previously noted, the evidence in the beginning was circumstantial. There was no other murder suspect, and Scott's alibi of the fishing trip was almost too convenient. But there was much more.

Odd Behavior

Detectives who were investigating the crime were mystified by Scott Peterson's behavior and attitudes after his wife's death as well as his vagueness in answering their questions. When asked about details of the fishing trip, he couldn't remember what he'd used as bait or what he'd gone fishing for. Instead of being distraught over Laci's death, he was upset about his car door bumping the other car in the driveway.

No Polygraph

Scott Peterson was not always cooperative in answering the police's questions. Instead of being eager to help them discover what had happened, he was ready to lawyer up. He also refused, several times, to take a polygraph test, which, if taken and passed, would have gone a long way toward proving his innocence.

Amber Frey

The real break in the case came when Amber Frey, Scott's secret girlfriend, called the police tip line. She was at a party with Scott before Christmas, and he'd told her that his wife was already dead, when in fact, she was still alive, but missing. When Frey later found out that Laci was missing and not dead, she contacted the police and began to work with them to uncover many of Scott's lies. Hours of phone conversations between Amber and Scott were recorded by the police. When the bodies finally floated up on shore later, in April, the police were ready to make the arrest.

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