Scott Peterson was on death row for more than 15 years for the 2002 murder of his wife Laci Peterson and his unborn son, but he scored a major legal victory on Monday. The California Supreme Court overturned his death penalty sentence, although the murder convictions still stand. The justices said potential jurors were not dismissed correctly.
The court said jurors were dismissed because they showed opposition to the death penalty in their questionnaires. "While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror's views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter," the court's opinion reads, reports CNN. However, the questionnaires did not prove that the jurors could not support a death penalty if the circumstances of the case permitted it. The justices returned the case to Stanislaus County Superior Court to hand down a new sentence for Peterson, 47.
However, the court ruled that the murder convictions still stand. "We reject Peterson's claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder," the ruling reads, reports PEOPLE. Still, they ruled that the murder trial judge made several "clear and significant errors" during jury selection that "undermined Peterson's right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase," citing previous U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
Laci went missing just before Christmas 2002 and was seven months pregnant at the time. Peterson reported her missing. Her body was found in San Francisco Bay in April 2003, and Peterson said Laci was killed when she was walking their dog. The case gained national attention when Peterson's extramarital affairs became public. One woman, Amber Frey, claimed she did not know Peterson was already married when they began dating, and she was called to testify at his trial.
Peterson was convicted of the murders of Laci and their unborn son in 2004 and was sentenced to death the following year. He had been on death row ever since, and an automatic appeal was filed in 2012. His attorney thanked the California Supreme Court for the decision. "Prosecutors may not rely on a jury specifically organized by the state to return a verdict of death," attorney Cliff Garner said. "In deciding whether to seek a new death sentence, the question for prosecutors now is whether they can prove Mr. Peterson culpable for this crime to even a single juror seated through a fair jury selection process."
The Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office said it would decide if it plans to seek the death penalty again after speaking with Laci's family. California is one of 28 states with the death penalty, although California has not executed an inmate since 2006. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a moratorium on the death penalty last year, but it only covers his time in office.