09/06/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Amber Frey kept her cool through much of her two-day cross-examination—until ex-lover Scott Peterson's attorney brought up the L word. "Did [Scott] ever say 'I love you'?" asked Mark Geragos on Aug. 24. Frey grimaced. "Not in those words," she answered. Geragos kept at it, and Frey grew testy. "Not in those words," she twice repeated, her lips tight. When she finally stepped down from the witness stand after nearly three hours during which she never once looked at Peterson, Frey said to her lawyer Gloria Allred, "That was pretty bad."
But for whom—Peterson, accused of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn son Conner, or the prosecution? From the moment she began her testimony in the Redwood City, Calif., murder trial on Aug. 10, Frey, 29, had come off as an emotionally vulnerable woman whom Peterson, 31, callously seduced. Geragos punched holes in that image, portraying Frey as being so desperate that she was delighted by an inexpensive Christmas present of a "Star Theater 2," which projects astral patterns, and obsessed with Peterson—calling him 14 times on Dec. 26 to thank him. He characterized their relationship as a series of booze-fueled one-night stands, noting that Peterson's nickname was HB. "Did [pal Shawn Sibley] tell you it stood for Horny Bastard?" Geragos asked. "She may have," Frey replied. "Didn't that give you cause for pause?" the lawyer asked. "No, it didn't," she answered. He also pounced on her willingness to dupe Peterson into believing that she was pregnant. "You could basically use the ruse [to] see if that would elicit some information [regarding Laci's disappearance]?" Geragos asked. "That was the concept," Frey responded.
Building on the fact that Peterson never said he loved Frey, some legal experts believe that Geragos undercut the prosecution contention that he killed Laci to be with her. And their drinking, bar-hopping and first-date sex "impeached [Frey's] credibility," says Bay Area defense lawyer Daniel Horowitz. "She's no longer the Virgin Mary on the stand. She doesn't smile, her lips are pursed, she's not charming. She's not as lovable. She's certainly not as heroic." Of course, the jury won't think Peterson was much of a catch either. On numerous phone calls that Frey recorded for the cops—often while investigators passed her notes—Peterson repeatedly lied about his whereabouts (at one point, he claimed to be in Europe while he was in California). "Let's put to rest that this is only about a cad," says Allred. "Most people who are at their wife's vigil after she's gone missing don't call their girlfriend."
Geragos attacked the tapes, hammering home that Peterson never admitted having anything to do with Laci's disappearance or discouraged Frey from going to the police. Geragos tried to show the tapes as police interrogation, said Horowitz. "She looks very much like a pathetic little puppet of the Modesto police rather than a mortally wounded woman."
That doesn't mean the case against Peterson is dead. The prosecution is expected to present more wiretaps from people other than Frey, as the trial could stretch through the fall. As for Frey, she will return to Fresno to resume her life with her two children, Ayianna, 3, and Justin, 4 months. But her testimony will leave an impression among jurors—for a while. "Her impact is mainly emotional," says Loyola University law professor Stan Goldman. "If you go another eight weeks in this case before the jury gets it for deliberations, that emotional impact will dissipate and they'll be left with the facts."
Bob Meadows. Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Redwood City and Ron Arias, Lyndon Stambler and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles