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Evidentiary hearing continues in Scott Peterson's bid for a new trial

Peterson's attorneys allege a juror lied at the pre-trial hearing and was biased toward Peterson
Scott Peterson’s San Quentin State Prison 2007 admissions photo. The prison is in San Quentin, Calif.

The words "High Profile Case" were displayed on Thursday morning on a monitor on the wall of Courtroom 2K of the San Mateo County Hall of Justice in Redwood City.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo, sitting by appointment, was in the courtroom to preside over a continued evidentiary hearing in post-trial proceedings in the murder case of Scott Peterson.

Peterson's case certainly qualifies as high profile, even 18 years after he was convicted of the murder of his wife, Laci, and the unborn child who they planned to name Conner.

The hearings came after the California Supreme Court returned the case to the trial court to explore Peterson's claim that his conviction should be set aside because of juror misconduct at his original trial.

Peterson was convicted in 2004; in 2005, he was sentenced to death. In the years since he has been incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, he has mounted numerous challenges to his conviction.

In October 2020, the California Supreme Court considered Peterson's claim that one of the jurors who served at his original trial lied to the court during pre-trial questioning.

That juror -- Richelle Nice, Juror #7 -- filled out a jury questionnaire that stated that she had not been a victim of a crime, had not been involved in a lawsuit, and had not participated in a trial as a party or a witness.

Peterson's lawyers filed a habeas corpus proceeding -- a legal procedure used to attack a criminal conviction -- alleging that Nice had lied on the questionnaire.

Peterson alleged that when Nice was four and one-half months pregnant in November 2000, she and her unborn baby were threatened, assaulted and stalked by her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend. Nice obtained a restraining order against the woman.

Peterson's lawyers argued that Nice was biased against him as a result of the matters that she did not disclose on her juror questionnaire. The lawyers contend that Nice would never have been seated had she disclosed the true facts, and her failure to do so required the conviction to be thrown out.

On Oct. 14, 2020, the high court directed the trial court to hold hearings on whether relief should be granted "on the ground that Juror No. 7 committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings..."

Massullo began the evidentiary hearings in February.

Nice testified and said she answered the jury questionnaire truthfully if not completely and accurately. She said that she did not have any bias against Peterson before the trial. She discounted the restraining order, saying she could hardly remember obtaining it. She also testified that she did not believe that she was a victim of a crime, despite getting the restraining order.

Matters were complicated when Gregory Beratlis, a fellow juror at the original trial, testified that during deliberations, Nice had used the term "little man" to refer to the unborn child, Conner.

Peterson's lawyers told the judge that they wanted to present testimony from Shareen Anderson, a documentarian and filmmaker who interviewed Nice for a 2017 documentary named "The Murder of Laci Peterson".

They planned to call Anderson to testify about a visit to Nice's house where Anderson allegedly saw a photograph with the words "little man" on it.

The court continued the hearings until Thursday to allow Peterson's lawyer to pursue that angle.

However, on Thursday morning, Anderson did not appear in court. Instead, she sent a First Amendment lawyer -- Tenaya Rodewald from the Sheppard Mullin law firm in Palo Alto -- in her place.

When the hearing opened, Peterson's attorney acknowledged that Anderson was not in court. He advised that court that he had not subpoenaed Anderson to appear because he believed she would appear voluntarily.

He told the judge that had been a mistake on his part.

Rodewald then made her presentation. She advised the court that Anderson was a journalist and was entitled to the protection of California's shield law. A shield law is a law that generally allows a journalist to decline to testify about information learned during newsgathering activities.

Rodewald also said that Anderson was not a California resident and even if subpoenaed in her home state she could not be compelled to travel to California to give testimony.

The judge suggested that a potential resolution to the issue would be for the parties to stipulate as to what Anderson would say if she were called to the stand.

After a break, the parties reached a stipulation that was read into the record.

The brief stipulation said that in 2017, Anderson interviewed Nice at her home, and while she was there, she saw a photograph of a young child wearing pajamas with the words "little man" on them.

The judge did not hear full argument on the significance of the"little man" stipulation, but Peterson's lawyers are expected to argue that Nice's use of the term shows that she had "named" the unborn child and demonstrates that Nice had an emotional attachment.

They will try to connect that emotional attachment to the restraining order incident and argue that it shows Nice had a bias when rendering the verdict.

Peterson's case has attracted worldwide attention.

Proof at the original trial showed that Peterson was having an affair while his wife was pregnant. The prosecutors presented evidence that Petersen killed his wife shortly before Christmas 2002 and then took her body out on his boat on San Francisco Bay and dumped her, weighted down by concrete blocks, in the deep waters of the Bay.

In April 2003, Laci's decomposed and partially dismembered corpse was discovered in the Bay. Conner was also discovered roughly a mile away. DNA tests confirmed Laci's identity.

The trial was originally planned for Stanislaus County where Peterson lived but the venue was changed to San Mateo County on account of extensive pre-trial publicity.

The last day of hearings is scheduled for Friday. The judge indicated that when the hearings are concluded, the parties will file post-trial briefing and she will likely have them argue their positions before she issues a decision.