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The Laci Trial: Justice for Laci

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Over at the county lockup in Redwood City, Calif., prisoner David Feger was killing time in his cell. Then he looked up that Friday afternoon, Nov. 12, and saw Scott Peterson being led back from the courthouse by three guards. It took Feger just an instant to figure out what the verdict had been minutes before. Gone in Peterson were the swagger and the smirk, replaced by the pall of a dead man walking. “He looked like a ghost,” says Feger, who was just completing a six-month stretch. “He didn’t look well.”

Peterson’s white-knuckle days are just beginning. Having been convicted of first-degree murder of his wife, Laci, and second-degree murder of their unborn son Conner, he now races the prospect of years of torment behind bars. On Nov. 22 the jury is scheduled to begin hearing several days of what is expected to be wrenching testimony from both sides on whether Peterson will be sentenced to death or get life in prison without parole. Whatever the ultimate punishment, the verdict provided satisfaction for many people across the country who had followed the saga almost from that Christmas Eve when Laci went missing nearly two years ago. “I screamed when I heard it,” says Susan Risso, 44, a teacher in neighboring Burlingame who rushed to the courthouse to be there in person. “Justice is served now.”

Behind the scenes, the verdict was also a huge relief for Laci’s family, especially her mother, Sharon Rocha, who until the very last minute worried that Scott would beat the rap. “It was awful for Sharon,” says her friend Carole Carrington, whose own daughter and granddaughter were murdered near Yosemite National Park in 1999. “There wasn’t a confession or a lot of physical evidence,” says Carrington. “One holdout could have caused a hung jury.”

The evening of the verdict, Sharon, 53, and about 40 other people, including her ex-husband Dennis Rocha, cops who had worked on the case, members of the prosecution team and friends attended a private celebration at the Canyon Inn restaurant in Redwood City. Sharon—obeying Judge Alfred Delucchi’s gag order—said nothing about the case there but left no doubt about her feelings. “Nothing came out of her mouth, but her eyes said a million words,” says one friend who was there. “And her smile, her smile was 100 percent Laci.”

Meanwhile, Dennis Rocha, 58, who owns a ranch outside of Modesto, couldn’t contain his excitement, calling to leave a jubilant message on a friend’s cell phone. “We got him!” Rocha exulted. “We got the guilty son-of-a-bitch! It’s a very good day.” After the verdict was read, Dennis was shepherded out of the courtroom by police officers, who later took him to the restaurant. “They had one helluva victory party,” says one person who was there. “Dennis had a couple glasses of wine and a few shots of tequila. One of the officers gave him a cap with the department’s insignia on it, which he wore for the rest of the night.”

By contrast, the reaction of Peterson’s mistress Amber Frey, whose 40 taped phone calls with Peterson showed him to be a breathtakingly prolific liar, was more complicated. According to her father, Ron Frey, she accepted the verdict but felt sorrow over having testified against a man she once loved—and evidently still cares about. “If he gets the death penalty, she’s a big part of putting him there, and it hurts her heart,” says Ron. “She has compassion in life for almost everyone.” Though his daughter is personally opposed to the death penalty, says Ron, she has not expressed any opinion about what sentence Peterson should face. Says Frey: “She’s turned that decision over to the 12 jurors and God.”

In the days before the verdict, the Peterson family appeared deeply apprehensive. “I’m just hanging on,” Scott’s frail-looking father, Lee, who has aged visibly during the trial, told PEOPLE. In court, at the sound of the word “guilty,” Scott’s mother, Jackie, slumped forward, dropping her head. Afterward, the defense team of Mark Geragos and Pat Harris seemed truly stunned by the turn of events. “Pat is heartbroken, devastated,” says one source close to him. “He was so into this whole thing—he genuinely believes that Scott Peterson is innocent.” Geragos, who was attending to other cases in the Los Angeles area when the verdict unexpectedly came through, indicated that there would be an appeal. “I’m still after the truth in the case,” he said.

If he hopes to save his client’s life, Geragos will have to make a strong presentation during the penalty phase of the trial—in which Sharon Rocha and other family members may make moving appeals to the jury. (Sharon Rocha has never said whether or not she wants Scott executed, though prosecutors did consult with her before calling for the death penalty. Dennis Rocha has said that he initially wanted capital punishment but now is less certain. “Whatever ends up happening is fine with me,” he told one friend.) “The prosecution will try to get the jury mad as hell,” says Bay Area attorney Daniel Horowitz. “You’ll have a Laci video montage of her growing up. It’s going to be one of the most painful things ever to sit through—it will be almost unbearable.”

Meanwhile, Geragos faces a difficult balancing act: He cannot put his client on the stand to beg for his life because Peterson would have to express remorse for his crimes, which would scuttle all hope of an appeal. And according to legal analyst Stan Goldman, drawing a death sentence may be a blessing in disguise for Peterson. To begin with, there is no chance that he would be executed anytime soon. Since California reinstituted capital punishment in 1978, only 10 inmates have been put to death. Thanks to the lengthy appeals process—it can often take five years just to get a lawyer to read the case—there are no inmates at present even facing execution dates. There are also practical benefits to being on death row: Unlike lifers, Peterson would get his own cell, with his own sink, toilet and radio. More to the point, he would be kept pretty much to himself, which would minimize the risk of attack from other inmates out to make a name for themselves. “Prisoners are people with very low self-esteem,” says Jake Goldenflame, a convicted pedophile who spent five years in the California prison system and is now both a victim and prisoner advocate. “One might think, ‘If I kill this guy, I would be a folk hero.’ So Scott’s in danger.”

Peterson should also not get his hopes up about an appeal. Some legal experts believe, for instance, that the fact that the second juror was removed under murky circumstances, once deliberations began, offers a promising avenue for challenge. But former San Mateo county prosecutor Dean Johnson cautions that in reality that may not amount to much. “The chances of Peterson seeing the light of day are slim to none,” says Johnson. “Even if his conviction is reversed, that doesn’t mean he walks out the door; it just means he gets another trial.”

Even with Scott Peterson found guilty, the difficult days are far from over for Laci’s loved ones. “There is a kind of letdown after the trial,” says Carrington. “There is nothing that is going to bring back the people you loved that were killed. You go on but you feel it every day.” Adding to their pain is the fact that Laci’s killer was not a stranger but a handsome, charming man they had loved and trusted like a son-at least for a short while. At the party the night of the verdict, one of the detectives asked Dennis Rocha when he first knew that Scott had murdered Laci. Just a few days after she vanished, Dennis replied. Said the detective: “You think like a cop.” Dennis shook his head. “No, I think like a father,” he said. “She was my little girl. There are some things you just know.”

Bill Hewitt. Ron Arias, Vickie Bane, Johnny Dodd, Lyndon Stambler and Frank Swertlow in Redwood City