Linked by a tragic loss
Peterson juror relates to Rocha's anguish over death of a child

 

By GARTH STAPLEY
BEE STAFF WRITER
Last Updated: December 19, 2004, 04:48:00 AM PST

 

REDWOOD CITY She wants to reach out to Laci Peterson's mother, to tell her she's all too familiar with the stinging grief that comes with losing a child to a violent death.

She longs to tell Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, never to stop searching for peace, to assure her that healing can come despite emotional scars.

And, Mary Mylett formerly known to the world as Juror No. 10 wants Rocha to know that for more than six months during Scott Peterson's trial, she watched her carefully from the jury box.

When it came time to declare the killer worthy of death, Mylett still grieving 18 years after the death of her baby summoned courage because Rocha seemed to embody courage.

"Tell her for me," Mylett said Friday in her only interview since casting a vote Monday for Peterson's execution.

"Tell her that every day she walked in the courtroom, I tried to keep a stiff upper lip because, despite what I went through, her strength gave me strength."

In the spring, 47-year-old Mylett figured she would be the last person chosen to sit in judgment of a man accused of murdering his pregnant wife and their unborn son at Christmastime 2002.

During jury selection, she mentioned a "family tragedy" in open court and was ushered quickly behind closed doors for a meeting with the judge and attorneys.

She bared her soul.

Those in the judge's chamber have kept her secret since, but what she said apparently struck a chord with both sides and she wasn't dismissed.

"Everyone said I should have lied to get off," Mylett said. "I thought the truth would set me free. It didn't."

The truth: 18 years ago, Mylett's 22-month-old son, Sean, walked in front of her Dodge van. She never saw him.

"Accident," the San Mateo County-issued death certificate reads. "Residence driveway. Run over by family vehicle."

The huge parish church in San Francisco where Mylett and her husband met as children was packed to the rafters for the boy's memorial service. "A line went out the door and up the block," she said, and a local newspaper wrote about the tragedy.

She identified with the Rochas

With that kind of exposure, she's puzzled that nobody outed her as a woman blamed in the death of her son sitting in judgment of a man who killed his.

Perhaps more perplexing is why attorneys on both sides and their high-priced consultants wanted her on the jury.

"It would give me great, great pause to leave somebody like that on the jury in a case like this," said Sarah Murray of Trial Behavior Consulting in San Francisco. "But it's very hard to second guess (experts)."

Maybe they judged that Mylett had "processed, resolved and feels at peace with what happened," Murray said, "even though it was a horrible thing."

Perhaps prosecutors sensed she would have uncommon sympathy with survivors of victims. Maybe defense lawyers hoped Mylett would identify with being falsely accused of killing a child.

"I know what it's like to lose a life," Mylett concluded, "and I know what's it like to take one."

She eventually identified in a very big way with trial subjects, but it wasn't Scott Peterson. It was Laci's mother, and, to a lesser degree, Laci's brother, Brent Rocha of Sacramento, also a fixture in the Redwood City courtroom.

"Every single night since July or August, every night when I go to bed, I am part of the Rocha family," Mylett said. "I was at Laci's baby shower. I was there for Christmas, for their graduations. When I dream at night, I'm part of their family.

"They are all very nice dreams there isn't a nightmare among them and it's helped me a lot because Laci is always smiling and Sharon is always smiling," she continued. "My nightmares were during the day (in court), and the dreams helped me heal at night."

Two jurors threatened afterward

Other jurors described their struggles with the awfulness of the trial, during and since.

Richelle Nice, 34, never missed a day in the jury box but was hospitalized Wednesday with bladder and kidney infections. "I don't handle stress well," she said Thursday, back home in East Palo Alto. "I was a mess. I'm better now."

Greg Beratlis, 46, of Belmont called in sick to work Friday. He said he couldn't allow his body to break down during the trial, when jurors "trudged forward knowing we had to do the right thing and not give up mentally."

Steve Cardosi, 29, of Half Moon Bay lost his aunt to cancer when jurors were sequestered during deliberations. He attended her funeral Friday.

"It kind of sucked because I didn't honestly get a chance to see her," said Cardosi, the panel's foreman.

Cardosi and Beratlis said they received death threats after Monday's sentence was announced. Beratlis' 14-year-old son was confronted Tuesday by a students who told him his father is a murderer. "It hurt," Beratlis said.

Right after sentencing Monday, Mylett tried to retrieve her car from the Foster City hotel where panelists had been sequestered, only to find it boxed in by media cars hoping to land an interview with a juror, any juror.

Over the previous six months in court, Mylett often furrowed her brow in concentration. But trial observers had no clue that an emotional volcano gurgled just below the surface.

"You don't know how many times I cried so hard on my way home that I had to pull over," she said. "Once I took an exit before I should have because I couldn't see through the tears. I saw a cop coming the other way and ran a red light because I wanted him to pull me over so I could scream at someone. He didn't."

At their Pacifica home, the judge's stern legal warning prevented Mylett from discussing the case with her husband of 24 years, and with their four sons. She gave up walks on the beach because she couldn't bring herself to look at the ocean, associating it with Laci Peterson's first resting place San Francisco Bay.

Eventually, she became convinced that Scott Peterson put her there.

"This man is more heinous than any criminal I've ever known," Mylett said, naming Charles Manson, the Zodiac killer and even Adolf Hitler.

Why?

"Those people didn't know their victims. They didn't lie down next to them at night.

"I don't hate Scott Peterson," she continued, emphasizing that she went into the trial with an open mind. "I'm indifferent. There is too much emotion to waste on that man."

When the time came to cast a vote for death, Mylett was a bit taken aback at how little she agonized.

"God should be the only one to have to make that decision," she said, "and I didn't want to play God. I was surprised at myself because I had peace in my heart. I am extremely comfortable with that decision and I am at peace.

"And I wish peace to the Rocha family."

The Rocha family has said publicly that Christmases never will be the same. Mylett feels similarly toward the Fourth of July, which she had spent in labor to deliver the son she lost.

Mylett knew the pain Rocha spoke of when she sobbed on the witness stand about having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. And she wants Rocha to know it.

"I don't want bright lights and a big press conference," Mylett said when The Bee called Friday morning. "The only people I care about are the Rochas.

"Tell them this for me: We (jurors) have taken care of business. But you can't change history. My hope for the future is in Brent's children. I know they're young. The only thing they've known is that their father isn't there very much, and they're growing up in the shadow of Laci and Conner. I hope they get on with their lives for those children."

Elizabeth Swearingen, a Modesto psychologist, said sharing like experiences is cathartic for many hurting souls. "It can be helpful to talk to other people in that situation so they understand they're not the only ones," she said.

Feelings of grief and even self-blame "are natural," Swearingen said, "but can be worked through in time."

Later Friday, Mylett went for a walk on the beach and looked out on the water, a part of which refused to keep Scott Peterson's dark secret. She thought of the son who would be 20 now.

And she managed to smile.

"Tell them," she said, "I know there can't be closure and there will always be scars, but there can be healing.

"Tell them. Do that for me." Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.