REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KRON) — Scott Peterson appeared tense in the courtroom Thursday while his defense attorneys made their closing arguments to a judge who will decide if Peterson is granted a new murder trial.
Peterson has served nearly two decades on death row in San Quentin State Prison after 12 San Mateo County jurors found him guilty of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son in Modesto.
Peterson’s defense attorneys assert that one of those jurors, Richelle Nice, was a “stealth juror” who went on a mission to get justice for Laci and baby Connor. Nice was nicknamed “Strawberry Shortcake” throughout the highly publicized 2004 trial for her bright reddish-pink hair.
‘Strawberry Shortcake,’ the alleged ‘stealth juror’
Defense attorney Cliff Gardner highlighted two questions on Nice’s juror questionnaire in which she gave false answers. Gardener said Nice intentionally lied about her personal history to cover up the fact that she was the victim of domestic violence while pregnant, just like Laci.
If Judge Anne Christine Massullo finds that Nice committed juror misconduct, Peterson’s conviction will be thrown out and a retrial will be granted.
Thursday marked the final day of the juror misconduct evidentiary hearing. Massullo has until mid-December to make her retrial ruling. Earlier in the hearing, Nice testified in her own defense. She was granted immunity from prosecution by the Stanislaus County District Attorney.
“Before the trial I didn’t have any anger or resentment toward Scott,” Nice testified. Her feelings toward Peterson changed after seeing evidence from the trial illuminating how Peterson murdered his wife on Christmas Eve 2002 and dumped her body from his fishing boat into the San Francisco Bay.
Prison letters to Peterson
Nice testified that she regrets writing dozens of letters to Peterson in San Quentin State Prison. In the letters she expresses deep sorrow that his unborn baby — who she nicknamed “Little Man” — never got to grow up. Nice urged Peterson to confess to the murders and explain why men cheat.
Peterson’s famous mistress, Amber Frey, was the prosecution’s star witness for establishing a motive during the trial. For jury selection, Nice was asked, “Do you have any opinions about people involved in extra-martial affairs?” Nice responded, “No.” But in a prison letter, Nice told Peterson that Eddie Whiteside, the father of her children, made her life “hell” by cheating with other women.
Defense attorney Pat Harris said the prison letters reveal that Nice had very strong opinions about men who cheat.
Gardner pointed out two questions from Nice’s juror questionnaire that were answered with falsehoods. One question asked, “Have you ever been involved in a lawsuit?” The second question asked, “Have you or any close friends or relatives been the victim or witness of a crime?” She answered “no” to both questions.
Evidence presented at the hearing established that Nice obtained a restraining order, which is a type of lawsuit, against Whiteside’s ex-girlfriend in 2000. The ex-girlfriend stalked and threatened Nice while Nice was pregnant with Whiteside’s baby.
“When she was pregnant … she was in fear for her baby’s life,” Gardner said. Nice wrote in her 2000 restraining order request, “Richelle does not want Marcella to be able to come anywhere near her child after it is born. Richelle feels Marcella would try to hurt the baby, with all the hate and anger she has for Richelle.”
A second juror testified during the hearing that Nice was ready to convict Peterson from the moment she walked into the jury deliberation room.
“She sat down and said, ‘Let’s get Mr. Peterson for what he did to Little Man,” Gardner said. The other jurors told Nice that they were not supposed to reveal their opinions about a verdict until after they had finished deliberating.
Questions over the juror questionnaire
In 2001, Nice discovered that Whiteside was cheating on her, confronted him, and a physical altercation broke out. Police arrested Whiteside and he later pleaded no contest to battery.
Nice testified that she did not think of the restraining order incident nor domestic violence incident when she was filled out her juror questionnaire.
Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney David Harris argued that there’s no evidence of Nice being a “stealth juror” who went on a secret mission to convict Peterson.
David Harris highlighted a moment during jury selection when Nice was leaving the courtroom to be dismissed from the jury pool because of financial hardship. Peterson’s lead trial defense attorney at the time, Mark Geragos, stopped Nice before she reached the door and the judge agreed to let her remain in the jury pool.
“She was trying to leave,” David Harris said. If Nice really was on a secret mission, “Then she’s the world’s worst spy,” he said.
“She had no bias against Scott Peterson when she was selected as a juror. That’s the facts. Ms. Nice is not very good at filling out forms. She made mistakes but she wasn’t hiding anything,” David Harris told the judge Thursday.
Gardner said if Nice had been accurate and honest during jury selection, Geragos would have never picked her to serve on the jury.
David Harris said the prison letters only show animosity that Nice felt toward Peterson after the trial was over. He told the judge, “Nice testified that her therapist suggested that she write those. These were written after the trial. Those letters do nothing other than share the anguish that Ms. Nice had gone through. This case changed her. Ms. Nice did her job as a juror.”
David Harris ended his closing argument Thursday by quoting William Shakespeare: “Do not cast away an honest man for a villain’s accusation.”
Peterson’s death sentence was overturned by the California Supreme Court and he was re-sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole in 2021.
At the re-sentencing hearing, Laci’s mother, sister, and brother delivered scathing victim impact statements. Peterson didn’t want to be married to Laci anymore, didn’t want to be a father, and tried to keep his mistress from finding out that he was married, Laci’s family said in court. Laci’s family called Peterson an “evil” “sociopathic” and remorseless killer.
Peterson’s sister-in-law, Janey Peterson, told KRON4 that if he is granted a new murder trial, she has no doubt he will be able to prove his innocence.
Janey Peterson said outside the courthouse Thursday, “The Constitution guarantees every defendant an impartial jury. As a family this has been a very long road. We are grateful this day has finally come.”