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Laci Peterson case: Prosecutor points to circumstantial evidence

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Editor's Note: As part of's new Crime section, we are archiving some of the most interesting content from This story was first published in 2004.

(Court TV) -- Scott Peterson's long-awaited capital murder trial got under way Tuesday with a prosecutor meticulously listing lies, caddishness and suspicious behavior he said implicated the fertilizer salesman in the death of his pregnant wife.

In an opening statement that stretched nearly four hours -- twice the expected length -- Deputy District Attorney Rick Distasto never gave jurors the bang of a smoking gun. Instead, he offered a steady drum beat of small bits of circumstantial evidence. From the Russian poetry Peterson read his mistress to the fishing gear in his alibi to the dessert featured on a particular episode of Martha Stewart Living, it added up to Peterson's guilt, the prosecutor suggested.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a common sense case," he told the panel of six women and six men at the conclusion of his opening statement. "At the end of this case, I'm going to ask you to find the defendant guilty of the murder of Laci Peterson as well as the murder of his son, Conner."

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the Christmas 2002 slaying of the 27-year-old mother to be. Peterson, her husband of five years, says he was fishing 90 miles away in San Francisco Bay when his wife vanished in Modesto and his lawyers have said she was likely abducted while walking the couple's dog. Her remains and those of her unborn son washed up on the bay shore four months later.

Outlining the case, which is to unfold over the next six months, Distaso focused on the credibility of Peterson's angling alibi and his alleged motive: a budding, but passionate affair with a masseuse named Amber Frey. Much of what Distaso told jurors was already known, but new evidence did emerge.

With regards to Peterson's alibi for Dec. 24, the day he reported his wife missing, Distaso said:

  • A scientist specializing in tides studied the location of the remains and concluded they separated just off Brooks Island, the same area of the bay where Peterson said he fished.
  • In the month after his wife vanished but long before her remains washed ashore, Peterson repeatedly visited a bay overlook with a vantage point of Brooks Island.
  • A phone tap captured Peterson giving a "low whistle" of apparent relief when he learned through a voice mail that an object detected by sonar on the bay floor was an anchor and not his wife's body.
  • A tarp Peterson apparently used during his fishing trip was found drenched in gasoline in his shed. Another was covered with fertilizer. Both substances destroy DNA and other human biological material and prevent tracking dogs from picking up a person's scent.
  • Expert bay fishermen will testify that there was "zero chance" Peterson could have caught sturgeon and striper with the rod and tackle he took to the San Francisco Bay. He did not have proper equipment, the right boat or a strong enough anchor, Distaso said.
  • Peterson bypassed a dozen closer fishing spots to go to the bay.
  • Peterson said he stopped fishing because it began to rain, but the harbor master at the Berkeley Marina said there was no precipitation that day.
  • Laci Peterson's mother and stepfather had a lengthy discussion of fishing with the couple on Dec. 15, but Peterson never mentioned that he had just purchased a boat a few days earlier.
  • A few hours after his wife went missing, Peterson told her uncle, Harvey Kemple, he spent the day golfing, not fishing.
  • The prosecutor also pointed to signs that Laci Peterson never left the home alive Dec. 24, saying:

  • A cooking segment on meringues that Peterson claimed his wife was watching when he left her Christmas Eve morning actually aired Dec. 23, the day prosecutors contend he killed her.
  • The diamond necklace, sapphire ring, band and watch Laci Peterson wore whenever she left the house were found in the couple's bedroom.
  • Distaso spent much of his opening discussing Frey, an object of intense media coverage. Flashing a photo of the blond woman on a giant screen before jurors, he identified her and then added, "You probably have seen her before."

    Frey, who is the most hotly anticipated witness of the trial, did not know Peterson was married when she began a relationship with him the month before the murder. Distaso played a five-minute clip of a phone conversation between the two for jurors. Frey recorded the calls after agreeing to cooperate with authorities, and many of them are to be played during the trial.

    The call played in court Tuesday was especially significant, Distaso said, because it occurred Dec. 31, 2002, the day of a community candlelight vigil for Laci Peterson's safe return. Peterson, he noted, was talking with Frey up to 10 minutes before the vigil was to start and arrived late.

    As jurors listened, Peterson was heard telling Frey that he was calling from a business trip in Europe.

    "Our relationship will grow," he told her. "I have confidence in that.

    Other evidence Distaso disclosed about the mistress included:

  • Peterson was introduced to Frey after begging a colleague who believed him to be unmarried to set him up with a "smart" woman who was "serious" about a relationship.
  • The couple spent the night together at a hotel in Fresno on Nov. 20, their first date.
  • Peterson blew off a Christmas party he was to attend with his wife to go to Frey's holiday formal. Distaso showed a photo of a very pregnant Laci Peterson in a red suit sitting alone in a corner at the party and then juxtaposed that image with photos of Peterson and Frey mugging in front of a Christmas tree.
  • When a detective confronted Peterson with a photocopy of a picture of him with Frey, he gazed at the picture and said, "Is that supposed to be me?"
  • Peterson told his sister-in-law, Amy Rocha, the picture was phony, "morphed" together by "people on the Internet."
  • Two weeks after his wife disappeared, Peterson read Frey the poem "Hops" by Boris Pasternak which includes the lines "we take cover from the worst of the storm, with a greatcoat round our shoulders and my hands around your waist." When she asked what it meant, Peterson said he was thinking of it in a sexual way.
  • Police found an album of photos from Scott and Laci Peterson's wedding in a garbage can in his storage unit.
  • Peterson told Frey that he didn't want any children and was considering getting a vasectomy. While his wife was seven months pregnant, he told Frey that her daughter "will be enough for me."
  • During the month after his wife's disappearance, Peterson approached separately two friends who are realtors and asked for help selling his home. He told one he wanted to keep the sale quiet and wanted to move the home immediately, even selling it furnished.
  • Peterson, dressed in a khaki suit and robin's egg blue tie, seemed to follow the prosecutor's presentation closely, peering up at the large display screen each time a new map or diagram or photo appeared.

    But he looked away when Distaso showed a series of photos of Peterson with Frey at a Christmas formal. As the pictures of him smiling in a Santa hat, talking on a cellphone and squeezing Frey as she beamed in a sparkly red dress, he swiveled away from the screen and looked across the room.

    Frey confronted Peterson about his missing wife Jan. 6, but he continued pledging his dedication to her until Feb. 19 when she broke off all contact with him.

    Peterson also turned away when the prosecutor showed jurors autopsy photos of Laci Peterson and her son. The graphic images showed the severely decomposed remains as they were found along the shore. Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, bowed her head and stared into her lap in the front row. Her partner, Ron Grantski, and Laci Peterson's siblings and friends did the same.

    Across the aisle, Scott Peterson's parents and siblings also bowed their heads. His sister-in-law, Janey, rose and left the court.

    As each new image flashed, there was a muted gasp from the packed public section of the court, but the family members kept their heads down and did not display any emotion. One juror, a middle-aged woman with long blond hair, covered her mouth and quickly looked away.

    Peterson's lawyer, Mark Geragos, is to deliver his opening statement Wednesday.

    Outside court, Peterson's father, Lee, walked to lunch surrounded by several camera crews.

    "Same thing, nothing new. No evidence," he said.

    Peterson's brother, John, said, "The truth will come out tomorrow." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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