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Law

Appeals, pace may delay Peterson's death


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Convicted murderer Scott Peterson will have a formal sentencing on February 25.
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In Scott Peterson's hometown of Modesto, reaction to the end of the penalty phase hits close.

Jurors: Scott Peterson's lack of emotion -- or remorse -- condemned him.

CNN's Jeffrey Toobin, Rusty Dornin and analyst Chuck Smith evaluate the sentence.

A California jury decides that Peterson should pay with his life for killing his pregnant wife.
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(CNN) -- Action on a jury's recommendation to kill Scott Peterson by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, could be decades away in the state that has more than 600 people on death row.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi will formally sentence Peterson on February 25. Delucchi can overturn the jury's death sentence recommendation and order Peterson to remain in prison for the rest of his life, but that option is unlikely, an attorney said.

"It's very rare for a judge in California to reduce a death penalty verdict," former San Mateo County prosecutor Dean Johnson said Tuesday. "(It's) even more rare for Judge Al Delucchi to do so. He gives deference and respect to the expression of the conscience of the community, as expressed by this jury."

Jurors in November convicted Peterson of first-degree murder in the killing of his wife and second-degree murder in the killing of her fetus.

Laci disappeared Christmas Eve 2002. Her corpse and that of the fetus washed ashore along San Francisco Bay four months later and a few miles away from where Peterson said he had been fishing the day she vanished. (Full story)

Monday, jurors recommended death for Peterson's punishment instead of life in prison without parole.

But death sentences carry mandatory appeals, and the last person executed in California, in 2002, waited more than 20 years. Consequently the judges discretion, the appeals process and the state's pace suggests a lengthy delay before Peterson's execution.

After sentencing, Peterson will go to California's San Quentin State Prison, which houses California's 641 death-row inmates -- the largest population in the nation.

Peterson's attorneys likely will file more appeals than the one required by law. Those appeals could drag his case out for years.

One cornerstone of those appeals could be the judge's dismissal of the jury's foreman during the guilt phase of Peterson's trial, former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffey said.

The foreman was one of three jurors Delucchi dismissed during course of the trial and deliberations.

California's pace in executing death-row inmates will be a factor in how long Peterson lives. Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, only 10 people have been executed, compared with 336 people in Texas, the state with the highest rate of executions.

In Modesto, where Scott and Laci Peterson lived, people reacted with relief at the sentence recommendation, which came just before the second anniversary of her disappearance. After the announcement, a single candle burned at the doorstep of the Peterson home with a sign saying, "Laci and Conner, may you rest in peace."

California is one of several states with laws dealing with the killing of a fetus. In 1970, the state Legislature added "or a fetus" to the state murder law, according to the National Right to Life Committee's Web site, which tracks state laws dealing with the fetus-killing laws. California law now states, "Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought."

After the addition, the California Supreme Court in 1994 ruled that the term "fetus" applies under the law after the embryonic stage of seven to eight weeks. State law also makes a defendant eligible for capital punishment if convicted of more than one murder, and the California Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that fetal homicide is included in that provision.

Peterson was eligible for the death penalty because of the provision.

Jurors said Scott Peterson's lack of emotion was one reason for their decisions, first to find him guilty and then to recommend he be sentenced to death. (Full story)

"If Scott Peterson had lost his wife and baby and was innocent, and was now on trial for his life, this would be a man who was emotionally devastated, and it would show on his face," Johnson said.

"But they looked across that courtroom and they saw another stone-faced, emotionless, sometimes even happy Scott Peterson. That complete disconnect was what destroyed Scott Peterson. Ultimately, the strongest piece of evidence against Scott was Scott himself."


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