One of the most infamous murder cases in Northern California of the last few decades, that of Laci Peterson on Christmas Eve 2002, is getting a fresh look from the L.A. Innocence Project, even though it seems like they could be spending their time and energy on more worthy — and more likely innocent — people in prison.
ABC 7 reported Thursday that Scott Peterson's ongoing campaign to exonerate himself in the 21-year-old case has now enlisted the Los Angeles Innocence Project, a group that advocates on behalf of those believed to have been wrongly convicted.
Outside of Peterson's family, I didn't know there were a lot of people who believed Peterson was wrongly convicted — though there have been some lawyers working for years to pick apart issues with the investigation, the prosecution, the judge, and the jurors in the trial itself. Those lawyers were gunning to get a new trial for Peterson in recent years, but in December 2022, that new trial was denied — though not before those efforts succeeded in getting Peterson resentenced in December 2021 to life without parole.
Now, purportedly new evidence that could point to some other random culprit in the murder — and to a random van that was set on fire near Modesto Airport around the time of Laci Peterson's disappearance — is being touted as a potential new route to a new trial for Scott Peterson.
Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant, was last seen alive on Christmas Eve 2002 near the couple's home in Modesto, on a day when Scott Peterson took an odd trip to the Berkeley Marina to go fishing. Her disappearance immediately gained national attention. The story only grew in notoriety after it was discovered that Scott Peterson was carrying on an affair with massage therapist Amber Frey, to whom he had lied about whether he was married.
Following the discovery of Laci Peterson's remains in April 2003, and those of her eight-month-old fetus, in the Bay near a Richmond fishing spot frequented by Scott Peterson, he was arrested in La Jolla with a packed car that appeared ready for a trip to Mexico.
This preponderance of circumstantial evidence won out at trial over a general lack of physical evidence. A hair that likely belonged to Laci Peterson was found in Scott's fishing boat, but that was about it for evidence directly linking Scott to the murder.
Still, the defense could not come up with many great alternative theories in the case. In one theory presented at trial, attorneys suggested that because the couple's unborn fetus had been found in the Bay separate from Laci Peterson, she could have been kidnapped and held until she gave birth, and then both mother and child were killed and dumped there.
With help from ABC News producer Mike Gudgell, who has taken some interest in the case, Peterson's family presented the L.A. Innocence Project with evidence they say was not examined by Stanislaus County authorities at the time of Peterson's death. That evidence includes the van that was set on fire nearby — which allegedly contained a mattress that had blood on it that was never tested for a match with Peterson — and evidence about a burglary that occcurred across the street from the Petersons' that Laci may have witnessed.
As the Chronicle reports, the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office sent a terse reply to the L.A. Innocence Project in December, in response to a 64-page request for evidence, some of which they suggested had been withheld from discovery in the original trial.
"Your 64-page request lists a few items which were purportedly not included in the initial discovery to defendant Peterson’s original trial counsel and several other items,” wrote special prosecutor Birgit Fladager in the response, per the Chronicle. “You may not be aware but it was our team that brought newly discovered information to the attention of … Peterson’s lawyers and the court during his last habeas matter."
Fladager also called it "troubling" that the organization said it was withholding some of the evidence it said it had recently found.
In a bizarre sidebar to this story, speaking of notorious NorCal murders, it came to light in recent years that Scott and Laci Peterson, who both attended Cal Poly in the 90s, were allegedly both present at the off-campus party in 1996 where Kristin Smart was last seen alive.
We will now wait and see whether the L.A. Innocence Project succeeds in getting anywhere with their efforts in the courts.