The three weeks of testimony in Scott Peterson’s preliminary hearing, which wrapped up Nov. 18, were full of legal dramas—and more than a few surprises. (See chart on the following page for some of the more pivotal points that emerged and how each side sought to spin them.) Throughout the hours of testimony, the families of Laci and Scott Peterson sat across the aisle from each other in the cramped courtroom in Modesto, Calif. Given the powerful emotions involved, it was notable how civil Laci’s relatives, especially her mother, Sharon Rocha, were toward Scott’s camp. No angry words, no icy glares. In fact, at one point early in the proceedings, Peterson’s attorney Mark Geragos could be seen kneeling next to Sharon, chatting amiably with her.
Which is not to say Sharon was able to control her feelings at all times. Later in the hearings, when the testimony turned to a graphic discussion of Laci and Conner’s autopsies, a clearly distraught Sharon quickly left the courtroom. On Nov. 17, with more autopsy testimony scheduled, Scott asked to be excused.
For the most part Scott maintained intense concentration on the proceedings, never letting his eyes stray even a few feet over toward the Rochas. During the days of testimony he would pore over the documents before him, whisper to Geragos or focus on the witness. During one session his mother, Jackie, who suffers from emphysema, accidentally knocked over a small canister of oxygen. The crash caused everyone in the courtroom to react and look over—everyone, that is, except for Scott, who continued to stare straight ahead.
From time to time, though, Peterson did allow an unguarded reaction. As he returned from a lunch break one day, his mother whispered to him, “Nice tie, Scott.” The defendant didn’t acknowledge the comment, but he could be seen lightly smoothing the tie with his fingers and grinning.
Ron Arias, Johnny Dodd and Vickie Bane in Modesto
THE PROSECUTION’S CASE THE DEFENSE’S CASE
Det. Al Brocchini described how, in the days after Laci vanished, police tailed Scott on three occasions from Modesto to Berkeley Marina, close to where he said he’d gone fishing. On each visit, Scott gazed across the water for several minutes, then drove home. Three months later Laci and Conner’s bodies were found on the shore north of the Marina.
THE MARIANA Attorney Mark Geragos pointed out that on two of the days his client visited the marina, the Modesto Bee had run stories about searching the waters and suggested that Peterson was just showing concern. But Christopher Mueller, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, voices doubt: “It doesn’t seem that’s the way you would normally react.”
Laci’s unborn son Conner was found with wrapping tape knotted around his neck and under one arm. The prosecution’s pathologist Brian Peterson said he believed the tape was “flotsam” and had simply lodged while Conner’s body floated in the water, after it had been expelled naturally from Laci’s womb, shortly before being found ashore.
CONNER’S BODY Geragos zeroed in on how old the fetus may have been. At the autopsy, Brian Peterson said the baby was “probably full term.” Geragos got the pathologist to admit “there was some evidence that Conner was born alive.” He also got him to concede that the body “could have been” in a plastic bag—all suggesting death sometime after Dec. 24.
Scott told police that when he’d last seen Laci on Christmas Eve, she’d been wearing black maternity pants. But when her remains were found, she was clad in tan pants. Her sister Amy Rocha testified that Laci was wearing tan maternity pants when she saw her on the evening of Dec. 23, which fits the prosecution’s theory that Laci was killed sometime later that night.
HER CLOTHES The defense didn’t seem terribly concerned about the pants. Although they didn’t bring it up at the hearing, at trial they could claim that Peterson simply mistook the color. “Everybody on the jury will have had the experience of trying to remember what somebody was wearing and getting it wrong,” says George Fisher, a professor at Stanford Law School.
A neighbor testified that at about 10:15 a.m. on Dec. 24—she was sure about the time—she spotted the Peterson’s dog McKenzie running loose. She put the dog In the Petersons’ yard. By narrowing the time of Laci’s disappearance, the prosecution hopes to negate other witnesses who claimed to have seen her later—long after Scott had left for his fishing trip.
THE COUPLE’S DOG Diana Campos, who works near the park where Laci often walked, later told police that around 10:50 a.m. on Dec. 24 she’d seen a pregnant woman walking a golden retriever and being accosted by two men. In the end it’s doubtful either side will benefit from the dog tales. “It doesn’t seem the time discrepancy counts for very much,” says law professor Mueller.