In a California courtroom this week, there was a hearing in a sensational murder case that most think ended nearly 20 years ago.
In 2004, Scott Peterson was convicted and later sentenced to death for killing his pregnant wife Laci and dumping her body in the San Francisco Bay. But now there’s a new twist in the case.
California’s highest court overturned Peterson’s death sentence last summer, meaning he will get a new sentencing trial. His supporters want him to be retried on all charges, saying they have new evidence that could exonerate him.
“Scott did not get a fair trial,” Peterson’s sister-in-law, Janey Peterson, tells CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti.
Janey Peterson maintains police did not look hard enough at others or consider a connection to Laci’s death and a burglary that happened across the street from the Peterson’s home. “The wrong person’s in prison,” she says.
Authorities are not commenting, but Jon Buehler, one of the original detectives on the case, disagrees.
“There’s nothing that’s come out that’s made me change my view that Scott got a fair trial and that Scott is the one who killed Laci,” he tells Vigliotti.
“Twenty years later, this case still holds a lot of interest,” says Jack Leonard, senior editor of investigations at the Los Angeles Times. “Mostly because it remains an enduring mystery.
CHRISTMAS EVE 2002
The infamous San Quentin prison is the last stop for men on death row in California, and where our story begins. Because that’s where Scott Peterson remains behind bars.
For years, the Peterson murder mystery captivated America.
SHARON ROCHA | LACI PETERSON’S MOTHER [at press conference]: Laci and her unborn child did not deserve to die.
Peterson was ultimately convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Laci and their unborn child Conner. He was sentenced to death.
But Scott Peterson’s death sentence has since been thrown out and several questions still remain. Some people believe he is innocent – that he was railroaded, even framed. Others say there is no question he is guilty.
It was just on the other side of the same bay nearly 20 years ago, the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn child washed up on shore.
On Christmas Eve 2002, Laci Peterson was first reported missing by her family.
GRETCHEN CARLSON [CBS News report]: Police in Modesto, California, have a mystery on their hands. A woman who is eight months pregnant has been missing since Tuesday when she left home to take her dog for a walk.
It happened in the city of Modesto, in California’s Central Valley. Scott and Laci Peterson lived here on a quiet residential street.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Christmas Day morning, about 9 o’clock, I get a call … I was a police detective at Modesto Police Department.
Detective Jon Buehler worked the case from the beginning.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Laci was as about as pure a victim as you can get.
She was about eight months pregnant when she disappeared.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: We went over to the Peterson house, which is when I first met Scott.
And the detective remembers noticing something odd about Scott’s behavior.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: He was a little bit – he just didn’t seem interested.
Before the sun rose on Christmas Day, police interviewed Peterson:
POLICE: You have no idea where Laci is?
SCOTT PETERSON: I do not.
POLICE: You guys didn’t have any problems? Marriage problems?
SCOTT PETERSON: No.
POLICE: Everything’s good?
SCOTT PETERSON: Mm-hmm.
Scott told police that Christmas Eve day he left Laci alone and went off a fishing trip. He said when he got home Laci wasn’t there – only their dog McKenzie.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: McKenzie’s there in the front yard area, the street area with a leash on that’s kind of muddy. And he’s thinking that this is kind of strange. Why would that be? His theory was that she had gone down into the park and had been walking the dog and something happened down there, abduction or something like that.
Police immediately started a search.
NEWS REPORT: Officers returned in force this morning combing the park and creek bank on foot and on horseback. Relatives, friends, and neighbors joined in distributing fliers and searching the park.
But Buehler saw no sense of urgency from Scott Peterson:
POLICE: You have any questions?
SCOTT PETERSON: No, I mean I’ve asked you a couple times what to do, um, so I have the answers to that.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Oftentimes, a victim who’s left behind is firing tons of questions at us. … And we didn’t get any of that from him.
The response from everyone else close to Laci was very different.
SUSAN CAUDILLO | SCOTT PETERSON’S SISTER: We’re searching we’re looking and we’re going to find you.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Everybody was going crazy. Everybody was impatient.
SHARON ROCHA: Whoever has her, please, please, please, let her go. Bring her back to us…”
DENNIS ROCHA | LACI PETERSON’S FATHER [sobbing]: Please … let us have her back.
Family, friends – the whole community mobilized immediately to join the search for Laci.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Sharon Rocha, Laci’s mom, her stepdad, Ron Grantski, her friends … her brother Brent, her sister Amy. They just saw this whole world coming down. They were always struggling to hold back tears.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: But when it came to Scott, he always would hold back a little bit. He wouldn’t show you all of his cards.
LOCAL NEWS REPORT: Officers began a search of the couple’s home late last night …
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: We knew we had to focus on him from the start … because that’s the way you work a homicide.
DOUG RIDENOUR | MODESTO P.D. [at press conference]: Nobody’s been ruled out. That’s what we’re trying to do right now.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Because generally, there’s going to be somebody with motive and generally, the motive is going to be somebody close.
On the morning of Laci’s disappearance Scott told police he drove to a boat launch about 90 miles away from his home. He said he wanted to take his brand-new boat out on the water to go fishing for sturgeon, but he never caught a single fish. As he drove home, he called Laci and left a message on her phone:
SCOTT PETERSON [voicemail]: Hey, beautiful. I just left a message at home 2:15. I’m leaving Berkeley. I won’t be able to get to Vella Farms to get the basket for Papa. I was hoping you would get this message and go on out there. I’ll see you in a bit, sweetie. Love you. Bye.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: it seemed like a very scripted message. … It just it seemed phony to me.
Skeptical detectives also wondered why Scott would have gone fishing in the first place. It was Christmas Eve and his wife was eight months pregnant. Peterson told investigators he had originally planned to golf that day but decided to go fishing because of the chilly weather.
SCOTT PETERSON [police interview]: It seemed too cold to go play golf at the club, so …
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: You got a guy who … said it was too cold to golf, but it ain’t too cold to go fishing. Are you kidding me?
Day after day, the search widened, and the story spread.
DENNIS ROCHA : Whoever has Laci. The reward is 500 thousand. Take the money, bring my daughter back safe … and take the money and go get away free.
Jack Leonard: First of all, you had an attractive looking couple. Why would – a pregnant woman suddenly disappear when she’s got plans to be with her family? And it was Christmas Eve, so there’s nothing else going on in the news. So, this attracted attention, first of all, from local news, and then national, and then it went global.
But hopes for finding Laci Peterson alive were fading.
DOUG RIDENOUR | MODESTO P.D. [at press conference]: We still don’t have any significant lead into finding Laci Peterson …
SHARON ROCHA: Please don’t give up on us.
JACKIE PETERSON | SCOTT’S MOTHER: Please send Laci back to us.
And police continued to play close attention to Scott Peterson.
DOUG RIDENOUR | MODESTO P.D. [to reporter]: Our discoveries during the investigation have resuscitated the revisiting of the Peterson residence with a second search warrant.
They also asked him to take a polygraph. He refused.
Ret. Jon Buehler: Scott told us that he wouldn’t take the polygraph … And so that arched our eyebrows a little bit that he wouldn’t take this thing.
GLORIA GOMEZ |NEWS REPORT]: Recently authorities released photos of Peterson’s pickup and boat, hoping someone could back up his story.
Both Scott and Laci’s family stood with him.
LEE PETERSON | SCOTT’S FATHER: There is no way in god’s green earth that he is, you know, even remotely involved in this thing.
SHARON ROCHA: We feel Scott has nothing to do with it.
LEE PETERSON: We’re looking for Laci, and we’re gonna find her.
Then it looked like there was a break in the case.
POLICE PRESS CONFERENCE: We’re received a tip yesterday …
Detectives discovered there had been burglary just across the street from the Peterson home. One witness told police she believed that burglary happened the same morning Laci disappeared.
Police quickly put that clue to rest.
DOUG RIDENOUR | MODESTO P.D. [at press conference]: We’re confident that we have the people in custody for the burglary and they are not connected with the missing of Laci Peterson.
Then, about a month after Laci went missing …
DOUG RIDENOUR | MODESTO P.D. [at press conference]: She is prepared to give a statement.
This case took a dramatic turn.
Ret. Jon Buehler: The first big break we got in the case was of course Amber coming forward.
AMBER FREY [at press conference]: We did have a romantic relationship.
THE OTHER WOMAN
SCOTT PETERSON [phone recording]: I wanted to call you.
AMBER FREY: Thank you.
Amber Frey had no idea her boyfriend Scott Peterson was married with a pregnant wife. In 2005 she told “Inside Edition” all about their love affair.
AMBER FREY [“Inside Edition”]: He was looking for someone to be with, someone to spend the rest of his life with. … You know, I was at a point in my life that I was ready to meet someone, too.
Amber was 27 years old when she met Peterson. It was November 2002 – a month before Laci went missing. Amber says Scott told her he was a widower. They dined on strawberries and champagne and she was beginning to fall for him.
AMBER FREY [“Inside Edition”]: It was real for me. And it felt real for him, too.
But after a friend saw the Peterson story in the news, he told Amber. And Amber called the police.
Detective Buehler and his partner raced down to Amber’s home.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Her recall was fantastic. It was almost like it was a script from a Hallmark TV show or something. She could remember restaurants they went to and what they ate. … She could remember what Scott was wearing. She would remember what she was wearing.
And Amber had pictures.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: You know, Scott’s in a tux and Ambers in that red dress they’re getting ready for the Christmas party.
That Christmas party was just a week-and-a-half before Laci would go missing. The detectives were stunned.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: We had a guy who looked like the guy you want to marry your younger sister. … But now we found that there was that chink in the armor.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: It doesn’t mean that he killed Laci. But what it meant to us is there was another side to him that had not been exposed before.
Investigators saw an opportunity. Maybe Amber could help them find out what happened to Laci.
AMBER FREY [“Inside Edition”]: They asked how I felt about tape-recording conversation with Scott … And I said “yes.”
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: She had an investment, an emotional and a budding romantic investment in this guy … I think she saw it crumbling in front of her.
The recordings would become part of a damning case against Scott, but first, Amber addressed the questions about her relationship.
AMBER FREY [at press conference]: Scott told me he was not married.
AMBER FREY [at press conference]: I am very sorry for Laci’s family and the pain that this has caused them.
Laci’s family turned on him.
BRENT ROCHA | LACI’S BROTHER [addressing reporters]: I would like Scott to know that I trusted him. However, Scott has not been forthcoming with information regarding my sister’s disappearance and I am only left to question what else he may be hiding.
The story sparked a media frenzy.
Jack Leonard: It was huge. It was wild. And it made the case even bigger. … You really had the rise of the 24-hour cable news. … You had Larry King on there interviewing legal experts, including Nancy Grace.
Jack Leonard: Almost from the beginning, she was zeroing in on Scott.
NANCY GRACE [“Larry King Live”]: Why did he leave his wife alone, eight months pregnant, on Christmas Eve?
Scott Peterson gave an interview to ABC’s Diane Sawyer while Laci was still missing. When asked about the marriage, he appeared to refer to Laci in the past tense:
SCOTT PETERSON: We took care of each other very well. She was amazing – is amazing.
NANCY GRACE [“Larry King Live”]: Ever heard the phase a slip of the tongue?
And there was another interview Scott gave with then-CBS reporter Gloria Gomez:
GLORIA GOMEZ: Why would you leave Laci … alone to go fishing on Christmas Eve?
SCOTT PETERSON: OK.
Scott explains that as a couple they had different interests:
SCOTT PETERSON: We have separate pursuits. … and being, you know, seven-and-a-half months pregnant she’s not going to want to go out in a boat.
But critics of Scott say the most surprising moment may be what happened when Scott’s phone began to ring during the interview. Laci was missing and Scott doesn’t pick up the phone.
SCOTT PETERSON: Want me to turn that off?
GLORIA GOMEZ: Yeah, what is that?
SCOTT PETERSON: That’s my phone, unfortunately. I thought it was off. [Scott gets up] … Yeah, it’s kind of going crazy isn’t it.
Gloria Gomez: He didn’t hesitate to turn it off and some would say that why, if you’re a concerned husband, if your wife is missing, you know, you would have that cell phone clinging to you and every call would be an urgent call.
And then, more than three months after Laci disappeared, in San Francisco Bay the bodies of Laci and Conner washed up only a few miles away from where Scott Peterson said he was fishing.
With the discovery of the bodies, detectives decided to move quickly.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Our concern was maybe he’s going to head for the border.
Authorities finally caught up with Scott at a San Diego golf course. He told them he was supposed to play a round with his father. He also had about $15,000 in cash and his hair was dyed blond.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: He had his brother’s driver’s license … in the car with him, two or three cell phones. And so, you know, not the normal stuff you have if you’re going down to the local Winn-Dixie to get groceries.
POLICE PRESS CONFERENCE: Scott Peterson has been arrested. He is in the custody of Modesto Police Department detectives.
Just over a year later in Redwood City, California, Scott Peterson went on trial. The trial had been moved about 90 miles from Modesto because of the huge amount of publicity.
Peterson had a high-priced Hollywood dream team of attorneys led by Marc Geragos, famous for defending celebrities like Michael Jackson.
MARC GERAGOS [during trial]: This is a capital case. I’m worried about my client’s life.
Jonathan Vigliotti: What did the state say they believed happened?
Michael Cardoza: Which part of the trial? [laughs] They changed their story a couple times.
Attorney Michael Cardoza also worked on Scott Peterson’s case. And though he was not part of the court room defense team he says the prosecutors’ theory of what Scott did to Laci was confusing.
Michael Cardoza: First, it was he killed her the night before, put her in the rug, put her in the truck, took her to the warehouse. Took her to – Berkeley and dumped her in the bay. Then later it was, “Yeah, I guess we really don’t know when she was killed, where she was killed. But we do know he did it.” Well, come on, guys. Make up your mind.
But the case against Scott would get a lot clearer when prosecutors started playing recordings – the ones Amber Frey managed to secretly make.
AMBER FREY [phone recording]: Hello.
SCOTT PETERSON: Baby?
AMBER FREY: Yes.
SCOTT PETERSON: Hey.
AMBER FREY: Oh, my goodness.
THE DAMNING PHONE CALLS
SCOTT PETERSON [phone recording]: Amber are your there?
AMBER FREY: I’m here.
SCOTT PETERSON: Amber.
AMBER FREY: I wish you could hear me. … Happy New Year.
Just about everyone who was inside the courthouse at the time agrees it was the tape- recorded phone calls between Amber Frey and Scott Peterson that really grabbed the jury:
SCOTT PETERSON [phone recording]: … I’m near the Eiffel Tower, the New Years’ celebration is unreal.
That’s Scott Peterson – one week after Laci went missing – on the phone with Amber Frey pretending he’s calling from Paris when authorities say he was really in Modesto while the search for Laci was still going on.
Michael Cardoza: Amber Frey. Simply. That’s what turned that trial … It was the pretext phone calls that Amber Frey made to Scott Peterson.
Jonathan Vigliotti: They were pretty damning.
Michael Cardoza: There’s no question. … That’s what changed this trial.
As jurors listened, Amber confronts Peterson about Laci:
AMBER FREY [phone recording]: I deserve to understand an explanation of why you told me you lost your wife, and this was the first holidays you’d spend without her? That was December 9th – you told me this and how all- of-a sudden your wife’s missing? Are you kidding me? …
SCOTT PETERSON: I never cheated on you – I never did.
AMBER FREY: You’re married. How do you figure you never cheated on me? Explain that one to me.
After the jury heard those calls with Amber, attorney Cardoza says everything changed.
Jonathan Vigliotti: So, you’re saying the emotion, the high emotion here drowned out the facts that were introduced by the defense?
Michael Cardoza: That emotion was so loud, they could hear nothing else.
And then, with crowds gathered outside and no cameras allowed in court, on November 12, 2004, a verdict: We the jury, in the above entitled cause, find the defendant, Scott Lee Peterson, guilty of the crime of murder of Laci Denise Peterson.
Michael Cardoza: When the guilty verdict came back, you could hear the crowd outside – when you were in the courtroom – cheering. Cheering. You don’t think the jurors heard that? What kind of effect did that have on the next phase of the trial, the death.
Four months later, sentenced to death, the applause was even louder.
But inside the courtroom, it seemed to Laci’s family that Scott hardly responded.
Harvey Kemple | Laci’s Uncle: It was just like always, no emotion. No nothing. The man is a definite psychopath. He is getting exactly what he deserves.
After sentencing, some of the jurors lashed out at Peterson:
RICHELLE NICE |JUROR [to reporters]: He is a jerk and I have one comment for Scott: You look somebody in the face when they’re talking to you.
MIKE BELMESSIERI |JUROR [to reporters]: Well, Scott came in with a great big smile on his face, laughing. It was just another day in paradise for Scott, another day that he had to go through emotions. But – he’s on his way home, Scott figures. Well, guess what, Scotty…
RICHELLE NICE: …San Quentin’s your new home.
MIKE BELMESSIERI: …And it’s illegal to kill your wife and child in California.
Michael Cardoza: Juror number seven – Miss Nice. … Listen to what she says. … You’ve just sentenced a man to death and you’re that bold in your statements? You’d think you’d be a little introspective about that because there’s nothing worse, nothing more ultimate, nothing more final than taking someone’s life.
Michael Cardoza: Scott Peterson, I have no opinion on whether he’s guilty or not guilty. But I do know Scott did not get a fair trial. He absolutely did not.
Scott Peterson’s attorneys filed appeals and nearly 16 years after his conviction, a decision.
Last summer, as Scott sat behind bars in San Quentin, the California Supreme Court threw out his death sentence.
Pat Harris: … The Supreme Court said, “He is going to get a new trial on the death penalty phase.”
Pat Harris was part of Scott’s defense team in the original trial and he continues to represent him.
Pat Harris: They determined that the judge had made a mistake in how the jurors were selected based on the death penalty part of the trial.
The result of that mistake, Scott supporters say, was that the jury was stacked against him with pro death penalty jurors.
Peterson’s team is also arguing that it’s not just his death sentence that was all wrong. They say Scott deserves a completely new trial to determine guilt. The reason: that juror number 7 – Richelle Nice.
Pat Harris: According to one of the jurors who was interviewed, he said that … she walked into the jury room and said, “What are we waitin’ for? Let’s get rid of this guy.”
Nice declined “48 Hours”‘ request for an interview. Harris maintains that Nice was biased from the beginning and when they were picking the original jury Nice was not forthcoming about her own history.
Pat Harris: It’s pretty clear … that she lied to us straight to our face about her own situation.
Prospective jurors filled out a questionnaire asking if they had in the past been in a lawsuit and if they had been crime victims. And Nice checked “no”.
Pat Harris: And we’ve come to learn that in fact … there were issues in her own – circle of people. And there were restraining orders.
In fact, Nice was involved in two domestic disputes in the past. But prosecutors say when Nice filled out that questionnaire she didn’t lie, she just didn’t think her past experiences were relevant to the questions and didn’t see herself as a victim. Now a lower court will consider if Peterson will get a complete retrial. And his defenders are ready.
Janey Peterson: Every piece of information we find out about this day further confirms that Scott is innocent.
Scott’s sister-in-law Janey Peterson says there are witnesses who claim they saw Laci very much alive after Scott had already left for his fishing trip that day.
Jonathan Vigliotti: And you think this is enough to prove his innocence?
Janey Peterson: Absolutely.
SUPPORT FOR SCOTT
Jonathan Vigliotti: Where are we right now?
Janey Peterson: This is our family business … we have a back office here that we’ve dedicated to the case files –
Jonathan Vigliotti: Oh, wow.
Janey Peterson – for Scott’s case.
Jonathan Vigliotti: So, this is really the war room, here?
Janey Peterson: Yeah. Yeah.
And Scott’s sister-in-law Janey Peterson has been at war for almost 20 years now. Even though Scott has only been granted a new trial on the death penalty, Janey is gearing up to prove his innocence.
Pat Harris: Janey is the heart and soul of the – the case.
Janey Peterson: I’m not talking about emotions. I’m talking about evidence. Everything on this board is a fact. … there’s no scenario of guilt for Scott.
Much of the case for Scott, she says, comes down to the timeline – what happened the morning Laci disappeared.
Janey Peterson: If Scott Peterson is guilty, what time did he commit this crime? … He’s on death row for the murder of his wife and child. And no one has ever said what time he did this crime, how he did this crime, or the series of events of how he carried out this crime that fits the evidence.
Janey Peterson [pointing to evidence board]: Basically, the day starts on the left side…
According to Scott, that morning he and Laci had breakfast and watched Martha Stewart.
POLICE: You remember what part you saw?
SCOTT PETERSON: … cookies of some sort – they were talking about what to do with meringues.
Scott told police Laci told him she was going to clean the house and then walk their dog, McKenzie. He told them that he left the house around 9:30 a.m. He said he went to a nearby warehouse where he had an office and sent an email from his computer, before setting off with his boat to the Berkeley Marina.
The prosecution argued that Scott had killed Laci sometime before he left the house that morning.
Janey Peterson: The state asserts that – Scott murdered Laci and that he loaded her body in his pickup, drove it to his warehouse.
But if Laci was seen alive after Scott left the house, Janey says the prosecution’s case falls apart.
Janey Peterson: There’s an abundance of evidence that shows that Laci was alive when he left for the day.
Jonathan Vigliotti [pointing at evidence board]: What does this show here?
Janey Peterson: The pink squares are all the people in the neighborhood who reported seeing Laci or McKenzie that morning.
Janey says most of these witnesses reported the sightings between 9:45 and 10:30 in the morning – after Scott said he left the house. She says so much depends on these witnesses, but the defense never called them to defend Scott at his trial.
Jonathan Vigliotti: If so many people saw Laci, claim to have seen Laci after that point … Why didn’t the defense bring them to the stand so that we could hear from their mouth what they saw?
Janey Peterson: I think there were – multiple factors that played into it. … you had people who, as time went by, thought that maybe what they saw wasn’t relevant to the case.
Pat Harris: There’s been a lot of criticism because we didn’t call some witnesses who saw Laci that day.
Scott Peterson’s attorney Pat Harris.
Pat Harris: The original thought process at the time was … a number of the witnesses who saw her didn’t have great – memories or had contra – were contradicting each other.
Police Detective Jon Buehler says none of the witnesses were actually sure if they did in fact see Laci.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: There were three girls in the neighborhood, two of which were pregnant at the time … and two of them having dogs walking in the neighborhood … So, it would be real easy for somebody to mistakenly see one of those three girls as being Laci.
Still, Janey Peterson says there is a witness who helps prove Laci was alive after Scott left that morning. It was the mailman.
Janey Peterson: What the mailman said is that, when I went by the Peterson house the morning of December 24th, I went by there between 10:30 and 10:50. … the gate was open, and McKenzie was not on the property.
Janey says that’s because Laci was out walking McKenzie. If McKenzie had been home, she argues, he would have barked at the mailman – because he always did.
Janey Peterson: … this dog, in particular, barked at that mailman every single day, whether he was behind the gate or in the house.
Jonathan Vigliotti: So, what you are saying is during this time, Laci had McKenzie and they were –
Janey Peterson: On a walk.
And according to Janey, if Laci was out walking her dog, then Scott – who was in his office sending an email – could not have killed her. But when it came time to testify, the mailman didn’t have a clear recollection and said “nothing out of the ordinary” happened that day.
Maybe more importantly to a new defense case though, is what Janey believes actually happened to Laci. Instead of Scott killing his pregnant wife, she says it’s more likely it was those burglars who robbed the house just across the street.
Janey Peterson: There’s too many unanswered questions about that burglary to set it aside.
The day Laci disappeared, December 24, the homeowners left to go on a trip around 10:30 in the morning. Scott Peterson and his team believe that Laci actually confronted the burglars and something bad happened. To prove it, they point to what they call the “Aponte tip.”
Janey Peterson [pointing at evidence board]: This is the Aponte tip … that was the call that was overheard by Lieutenant Aponte at Norco Prison.
Lieutenant Xavier Aponte was a corrections officer. He called in a tip about a phone recording he had heard about a month after Laci disappeared.
Janey Peterson: And he said he had an inmate who was on the phone with his brother in Modesto discussing the fact that Laci had encountered the burglars across the street from her house.
Janey Peterson: When we heard this, we all thought, “Wow, maybe – maybe this’ll give us some answers as to what happened to Laci.”
But remember, police dismissed the burglary early on:
DOUG RIDENOUR | MODESTO P.D. [at press conference]: We do not believe at this time that there’s any connection with the missing of Laci.
Pat Harris: The police figured out who did it. … They asked the culprits, “Well, when did you do this?” And the two gentlemen that were arrested said, “Oh, it was – December 26th, the day after Christmas.”
Not on December 24, when Laci went missing, but two days later. Peterson’s defense isn’t buying it.
Pat Harris: On December 26th, there was a line of media … reporters standing outside the Peterson home up and down that street. There is no way in hell you could burglarize a house with all those people standing out there.
But police say the burglars broke in through a back door on the 26th, out of sight of the street and any reporters who may have been there.
As for the tip about an inmate phone call from prison, prosecutors say the phone call is just hearsay. Still, Peterson’s attorney says if Scott gets a chance at a new trial, that burglary will be front and center. And so will their theory of the crime: that Scott Peterson was actually framed for his wife’s murder.
Janey Peterson: What better way to get out of trouble than go put the body where the husband was?
WAS SCOTT PETERSON FRAMED?
In a 2017 A&E documentary, Scott Peterson spoke about the moment he heard the word “guilty.”
SCOTT PETERSON [phone recording]: I was staggered by it. I had no idea it was coming.
SCOTT PETERSON [phone recording]: … and I just had this weird sensation that I was falling forward.
Those thoughts seem starkly different from courtroom reports that describe Peterson as “emotionless.”
JUROR [at press conference]: Scott had no emotion on his face, Scott was being Scott.
And according to his lawyer, that lack of outward emotion hurt Scott from day one.
Pat Harris: I think the biggest problem I have is … what I call the “he didn’t act right” evidence. There is no such thing as how to act. There’s no playbook on how to act when your wife has been murdered. … No matter what you do, when you’ve built the narrative in your mind that he’s guilty, whatever Scott did was gonna be interpreted through the lens of he’s guilty …
Pat Harris: It was a terrible investigation from the first minute.
Harris says authorities had tunnel vision. He claims they never looked at other possibilities, or even the logic of their own theories.
Pat Harris: We did an experiment which we filmed.
The defense team loaded weights into a boat.
Pat Harris: We took the exact weight – We had the boat, similar … We recreated it, did a video. And sure enough, when the body was dumped over, the boat flipped. We had a video of this. The judge refused to let it in.
But the Supreme Court said that the judge was correct not to let it in. They said the defense had used a different boat, a different motor, in different weather, and one of their own employees who stepped on the side of the boat to let in water and allow the boat to swamp. They even pointed out that the original judge offered the defense a chance to redo the experiment with the original boat and someone who was not a defense employee. But the defense declined. Still, Janey says if given a chance, the defense will present other exonerating evidence.
Janey Peterson: We have an ongoing investigation that we don’t discuss publicly. But I guarantee you that Scott will never be convicted of capital murder again in a court of law.
Jonathan Vigliotti: Some of the most damning evidence is where Laci and her unborn child were found. They washed up very close to an area where Scott Peterson was fishing. Are you saying that’s just coincidence?
Janey Peterson: I’m not saying it’s a coincidence. I’m – I would argue it was on purpose.
Jonathan Vigliotti: On purpose?
Janey Peterson: On purpose.
They claim that Peterson was actually framed for the murder, and the real killer or killers held on to Laci’s body, eventually dumping it into the San Francisco Bay.
Janey Peterson: Her body wasn’t taken to the bay December 24th. The bay wasn’t sealed off as a crime scene. …There are multiple points of access directly to the water, 24 hours a day. I think they took Laci, had Laci, realized the national attention that this case was getting, realized they were in trouble. What better way to get outta trouble than go put the body where the husband was?
Jonathan Vigliotti: Who is they in this scenario?
Janey Peterson: Well I – I can’t get past the burglary.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: The two burglars that were involved in that both told consistent stories that were backed up by other independent witnesses.
Detective Jon Buehler, one of the original investigators, says burglars had nothing to do with Laci’s murder. And the idea that Laci was kidnapped in broad daylight in that neighborhood just doesn’t make sense.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: Well, how come nobody saw Laci get abducted? … nobody saw an abduction in broad daylight where a girl had a dog, and the dog would be barking, and a girl would be screaming. Tell me how that is going to happen because I don’t see it.
As for the idea that Scott was framed …
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: What is the likelihood that somebody is going to abduct Laci, and then all of a sudden, the media has intense scrutiny and attention to it. And then they’re going to take her 90 miles to San Francisco Bay, and they’re going to put her in the exact same area that Scott said he was fishing in? All the while we’re doing searches up there, all the while that the media is camped out over there, that you’ve got cops and deputies and other agencies over there looking into this.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: You want to try and make that stretch with me that somebody is going to drive from Modesto to Berkeley to take a body out there in the midst of that? Well, I guess possible. But you know, there’s still people that believe the earth is flat, too.
The District Attorney is not commenting on the defense’s theories, but at Peterson’s trial, contrary to what the defense argued, prosecutors laid out their relatively clear theory of the crime: that Laci had been murdered in the home either the night before or the morning she disappeared. And they focused on all the falsehoods Peterson had told.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: We knew that he was able to lie fairly easily.
Everything from the big lies he told to Amber Frey …
SCOTT PETERSON [phone recording]: It’s pretty awesome, fireworks there at the Eiffel Tower.
SCOTT PETERSON [phone recording]: I have – I’ve lied to you that I’ve been traveling.
… to the little lies prosecutors say he told about the morning Laci vanished. Remember he said he left home around 9:30 a.m.:
POLICE INTERVIEW: OK, so then about 9:30 you left?
SCOTT PETERSON: Mm-hmm [affirms].
But that Martha Stewart segment on meringues he talked about watching with Laci?
SCOTT PETERSON: We were watching her favorite show, “Martha Stewart.”
That didn’t come on until 9:48 a.m.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: You have to dismiss so much circumstantial evidence in this case to believe that Scott didn’t do this.
Ret. Det. Jon Buehler: In a circumstantial evidence case becomes like a big rope. It’s got strand after stranded after strand. And when you get so many strands weaved together on this big rope, this rope is very, very strong.
Buehler remains as confident as he ever was in Peterson’s guilt. But Scott’s defenders are just as confident.
Jonathan Vigliotti: So, are you saying he’s innocent?
Pat Harris: Yes.
Jonathan Vigliotti: Or – you are.
Pat Harris: Yes.
Pat Harris: Oh, he’s innocent. … I would bet my life on it.
Both sides wait to see if the court will allow Peterson’s team a chance to fight not just the death penalty, but for his innocence as well.
Until then, we’re left with an almost unspeakable tragedy – the murder of 27-year-old Laci and her unborn baby, Conner … and you have to wonder what’s going through Scott Peterson’s mind as he sits in prison just a few short miles across the bay from where their bodies washed ashore.
Scott Peterson’s next court appearance is expected in June 2021
Produced by Chuck Stevenson. Michelle Fanucci is the development producer along with Ryan Smith. Emily Wichick is the field producer. Lauren Turner Dunn is the associate producer. Richard Barber is the producer-editor. Phil Tangel is the editor. Patti Aronofsky is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.