• Patrick Santos, Esq.

Death Penalty Reversed: Did Scott Peterson Get Off Scot Free? ((2020) 10 Cal. 5th 409).

2020 was not all just death, doom, and gloom. For example, the death penalty sentence of Mr. Scott Peterson was reversed in August. Well, that is still gloomy and deathly. Pretty shocking though.

In any event, my peers will recall this case clearly: its' gruesome nature, Scott's oddball activities after her death, and his face o' stone throughout his murder trial alleging he killed his beautiful wife, Laci, and his unborn baby, Conner. So, what happened?

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Here's a PDF copy of the California Supreme Court's August 24, 2020 Published Opinion. (see also People v. Peterson (2020) 10 Cal. 5th 409.)

Let us explore.

The decision affirmed both the murder conviction and the special circumstances of the murders, but reversed the penalty of death. The Honorable Associate Justice Kruger authored the 106-page Opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Chin, Corrigan, Liu, Cuéllar, and Groban concurred. Peterson’s verdict of death was appealed automatically pursuant to law. (Pen. Code § 1239(b).) But he had outstanding counsel, Mr. Gardner, appointed by the Court.

Our State Supreme Court held the trial court made a "series of clear and significant errors in jury selection" that undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at his penalty phase. Citing the long-standing United States Supreme Court decisions of Witherspoon and Wainwright, the court held a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter. (Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968) 391 U.S. 510; Wainwright v. Witt (1985) 469 U.S. 412.)

In short, as blogs tend to be, the high court held the trial judge erroneously dismissed many prospective jurors because of written questionnaire responses expressing opposition to the death penalty, even though the jurors gave no indication that their views would prevent them from following the law. Actually, they specifically attested in their questionnaire responses that they would have no such difficulty. "These errors require us to reverse the death sentence in this case."

When you "Get Off Scot Free" you avoid punishment for doing something that deserves punishment. To be clear, in this case, the Court held that "[o]n remand, The People may retry the penalty phase if they so choose." (emph. added). I imagine they most certainly will, so no - Scott did not get off scot free.

In the meantime, a lot of human words hush quietly and linger in the background of our minds. A nice poem on the internet entitled "Nightfall" is apt:

No sign of life did flicker In floods of tears she cried All hope's lost it can't be undone They're wasted and gone Save me your speeches I know (They blinded us all) What you want You will take it away from me Take it and I know for sure The light she once brought in Is gone forevermore Like sorrowful seagulls they sang (We're) lost in the deep shades The misty cloud brought (A wailing when beauty was gone Come take a look at the sky) Monstrous it covered the shore Fearful into the unknown.

~ poem available here.

Patrick T. Santos is a California appellate and trial attorney with 12 years' experience. Free consultations available. (310) 424-3050 or visit us on the web at

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