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Fearing a killer's profit, Laci Peterson's parents up suit to $25M

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

Scott Peterson is escorted in March to a van for transfer to San Quentin.
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(Court TV) -- Laci Peterson's parents upped the amount of their civil suit against her killer by $20 million because they fear he may use Hollywood contacts to get a lucrative movie deal or otherwise turn a large profit on his infamous crime, according to an attorney for the victim's mother.

"His lawyer is from L.A. He's close to people there. Crazier things have happened," lawyer Adam Stewart said, explaining why Sharon Rocha and her ex-husband, Dennis, increased the damages sought in the suit from $5 to $25 million this week.

With Scott Peterson formally sentenced to death for the murders of the mother-to-be and the fetus she was carrying last month, the Rochas' wrongful death suit is now moving forward in Modesto, the couple's hometown.

A scheduling conference is set for April 18.

Peterson's civil lawyer, Matt Geragos, brother of his criminal trial attorney, Mark Geragos, did not return calls seeking comment, and it was unclear whether Peterson, who maintains his innocence, had any plans to sell his story.

A spokesman at San Quentin State Prison, Lt. Vernell Crittendon, said that, since Peterson arrived on death row, he has received several solicitations to pen his story.

"I've seen [mail] from people who want to work with him on writing a book," he said.

Until 2002, California had a "Son of Sam" law that prevented convicts from profiting from their crimes, but the state's Supreme Court determined the law violated the First Amendment and wiped it from the books.

Stewart said a $25 million award not only would ensure that Peterson never made money off the murders, but is merited by the circumstances of the crime. Jurors determined that Peterson murdered the 27-year-old, who was nearly eight months pregnant with their first child, in their home a day or two before Christmas 2002.

"O.J. [Simpson] got $33 million. We think $25 million is appropriate here," Stewart said.

Unless he makes money on death row, however, any award would be largely symbolic. Peterson, who earned about $60,000 a year as a fertilizer salesman before the murders, was declared indigent during the course of his six-month trial and received public funds to pay for his defense.

According to Stewart, the 32-year-old has some assets, including his share of the $177,000 ranch home he shared with his wife, its furnishings and a vehicle. The home, half of which is the property of Laci Peterson's heirs, is heavily mortgaged, and Peterson also used it as collateral when he borrowed $100,000 from his parents.

"You might say, well, why waste your time, but he's a young guy and he has the potential to earn money," Stewart said.

Peterson's criminal conviction means a civil jury does not have to find him liable for the murders, as a jury did in the case of Simpson, who was acquitted by a criminal jury. The jurors' task would be to determine the amount the Rochas should receive for funeral expenses, the loss of their daughter's "comfort, support, protection, companionship, society, services and love" and punitive damages.

The evidence would consist largely of the testimony of the Rochas themselves. If Peterson does not mount a defense, a judge would determine the amount of the award.

It was unclear whether Peterson would be able to attend a civil trial.

Crittendon said the prison would comply with a court order to send Peterson to Modesto for the civil trial, but "I have not heard of that occurring in my 28 years here."

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