Police, prosecutors talk about getting conviction against Scott Peterson
Updated March 17, 2005, 6:01 p.m. ET
By Harriet Ryan
MODESTO, Calif. — The prosecutors who won a capital murder conviction against Scott Peterson were bound by a gag order during the six-month trial, but at a news conference Thursday, they finally said the two words they wanted to tell all the legal analysts on television second-guessing their court performance.
"Trust us," Stanislaus County Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris told a room full of reporters the day after Peterson was formally sentenced to death for the murders of his wife and unborn son.
"We would have liked the talking heads to say, 'Well, maybe these guys do know what they are doing,'" Harris said of the commentators who spent the early months of the trial ridiculing the Modesto prosecutors as incompetent and out of their depth.
"My mom would call and say, 'They are just saying terrible things about you,'" Deputy District Attorney Rick Distaso said.
prosecutors from the small, agricultural county bested
Peterson and his high-profile Los Angeles attorney, Mark
Geragos, convincing 12 jurors he had plotted and carried
out the murders of his wife, Laci, and son.
The news conference at police headquarters was the first opportunity for police and prosecutors who built the circumstantial case against the 32-year-old to discuss at length the work they began on Dec. 24, 2002 — the day Peterson reported the expectant mother missing.
Laci Peterson's mother and stepfather, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, were scheduled to attend the briefing, but a spokeswoman for the couple said they were drained from the emotional statements they made during the sentencing hearing.
"They are exhausted today, both emotionally and physically," the spokeswoman, Kim Peterson, said.
The press conference had a markedly different tone from Wednesday's wrenching sentencing hearing in Redwood City, the site of the trial.
Back in their hometown, just hours after Peterson was moved to death row at San Quentin State Prison, prosecutors and police officers appeared relaxed and relieved.
Modesto Police Department detective Al Brocchini, who wept Wednesday as Sharon Rocha described missing her daughter and grandson, broke into a broad smile during the press conference.
He and another detective, Jon Buehler, said that it was an inside joke in the department that he and three other detectives at the center of the investigation only had high-school diplomas, but the man they were pursuing held a degree from California Polytechnic University.
"He liked to think he was smarter than everybody," Brocchini said. "I want him to know I have a high-school diploma only."
The prosecution team also praised Peterson's mistress, Amber Frey, for her performance on the witness stand.
"Geragos wasn't able to lay a mark on her," Buehler said.
Harris added, "She was a very crucial witness, not just for her testimony, but for what came with her, which were the audio tapes."
Those tapes showed Peterson pretending to be a rich bachelor traveling in Europe, a "private side which was capable of killing Laci and Conner," Harris said.
Prosecutors said they never would be able to say for sure how Peterson carried out the crime and doubted the former fertilizer salesman would ever admit his acts.
"I think he'll go to his grave with his mouth tightly sealed," said county District Attorney Jim Brazelton.
Asked if Peterson had selected Dec. 23, 2002, specifically to murder his wife or just seized the opportunity, Distaso said, "I think he did mean to do it that night."
He cited a fishing license he bought three days earlier, apparently to set up his fishing alibi. He acknowledged that Peterson had invited his sister-in-law, Amy Rocha, for dinner that night, an invitation she declined, but said he thought the offer of a meal was just a bid to strengthen his story.
"I think Scott Peterson was a cold, calculating person, and I think he intended to kill Laci later in the evening after Amy had left," Distaso said. "I think he was thinking of a way to set up his alibi."
Although many legal commentators have called the location of the bodies the strongest piece of evidence against Peterson, Brazelton said he would have pressed murder charges even if the 27-year-old's remains and those of her child had never been recovered.
"Definitely, yes," he said.
The detectives said the biggest mistake Peterson made was the nonchalant attitude he displayed in the wake of his wife's disappearance.
He seemed to think that a 27-year-old pregnant woman vanishing would attract scant attention from police and the national media, Buehler said.
"I think he judged not only us, but probably you guys, too, and the efforts you were going to put into it," the detective told reporters.
Peterson's comment to his mistress, Amber Frey, that he expected be free to pursue a more intense relationship in January 2003, just a month after his wife went missing, indicated he never anticipated the massive national media coverage of the expectant mother's disappearance, Buehler said.
Peterson's stoic demeanor two years ago made it less surprising when he showed no emotion in court Wednesday as his wife's family castigated him for killing her, Brocchini said.
"It wasn't a surprise to me. That's been his reaction since the first day I met him: calm, cool, nonchalant, polite, arrogant, thinks he is smarter than everybody," the detective said.