The Peterson Verdict: Special Circumstances

Understanding How 'Special Circumstance' Effects Sentencing

Scott Peterson
Scott Peterson. Mug Shot

When the jury in the Scott Peterson trial returned a verdict of first degree murder of his wife Laci Peterson with the finding of special circumstances, it was a signal of which penalty they would  recommend in the sentencing phase of the trial.

Under California law, a person found guilty of murder in the first degree can be punished by death, imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole, or imprisonment in the state prison for a term of 25 years to life. However, if the jury finds that the murder was committed under special circumstances, the only penalty is death or life without the possibility of parole.

In other words, when the jury returned the finding that Scott Peterson killed his wife Laci under special circumstances, it eliminated any chance that Scott will ever get out of prison.

Different Findings of Special Circumstances

The California code lists 22 different findings of special circumstances under which a defendant came be found guilty. In the Scott Peterson case, the special circumstance that applies is that "the defendant was convicted of more than one offense of murder in either the first or second degree."

Because the jury found that Peterson was guilty of murder in the second degree for the killing of Laci's unborn son Conner, they were able to return a finding of special circumstances for both murders.

Some courtroom observers believed that the jury's finding of second degree murder in the death of Conner may have been a sign that they were hesitant to recommend the death penalty for Peterson. By finding special circumstances for Laci's murder, the jury eliminated any chance of parole and therefore it appeared to signal that they are inclined to sentence Peterson to the rest of his life in prison.

However, other observers felt that the jury knew exactly what it was doing by finding Peterson guilty of first-degree murder, because it added the death penalty as a possible sentence. If they had not wanted to consider the death penalty, they could have found him guilty of second-degree murder in Laci's death and gone home.

On the other hand, if they had found him guilty of second-degree murder in both cases, Scott Peterson could someday be eligible for parole.

Premeditated Murder

Under California law, murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought. The difference between first-degree and second-degree murder is that first-degree murder is intentional and/or premeditated.

Some court reporters said the jury may have thought that Laci's death may have been the result of an argument or fight the couple had in the days before Christmas 2002 and Scott may have killed Laci in a fit of anger without considering that he was also killing her unborn child. Therefore, the jury found second-degree murder in Conner's case.

However, if the jury believed that Laci's death was the result of a argument that got out of hand, they could not have returned a verdict of first-degree, premeditated murder. The jury obviously believed the prosecution's theory that Peterson carefully planned the murder of his pregnant wife.

If the jury believed Scott Peterson planned Laci's murder, why did they not find that he also planned Conner's murder? There may be an explanation. It may be that some on the six-man, six-woman jury had a problem convicting anyone of the murder of an unborn child.

Murder of a Fetus
Although California, like many other states, passed a law specifically making the killing of a fetus murder, there may have been some on the Peterson jury who believed that a fetus is not a person until it is born. Many pro-abortion groups have opposed the new "fetal protection" laws because they believe it may undermine their position that a fetus is not a "person" until it is born.

If there were jurors on the Peterson panel who held the same viewpoint, it may have been difficult for them to find Peterson guilty of murdering Conner, in spite of the California law.

The second-degree verdict in the murder of Conner, therefore, may have been a compromise to appease those jurors. Without a conviction for Conner's death also, the jury would not have been able to find special circumstances in Laci's murder and remove the possibility of parole for Scott Peterson.

Another View of the Verdict:

  • Guilty As Sin
    The double homicide conviction should give America pause to consider the apparent schizophrenic nature of law as practiced in the United States, and our view of the unborn child in the womb.