Inside the Jury
12/27/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
The jury filed into the cramped deliberation room, then sat there in total silence for five minutes—a sliver of time that felt like an eternity. The six men and six women were there on Dec. 9 to decide whether Scott Peterson would live or die. But they were in no hurry to get started. "You just felt people needed some time to absorb everything," says juror Richelle Nice, 34, an unemployed mother of four from East Palo Alto, Calif., who sat in her customary chair at the end of the table. "I just felt nervous—this was the big one." Then, after taking their collective deep breath, the jurors began their unenviable task.
Hunkered down over the past six months in the news-free zones of their homes, or the sequestered sanctity of their hotel rooms, and, ultimately, the privacy of their deliberation room, the Peterson jurors managed to do something remarkable: calmly weigh the evidence in an extraordinary case with a full-blown media storm howling just outside their windows. Their Dec. 13 recommendation that Peterson, 32, be put to death for the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son Conner may not heal the anguish felt by the victims' family and loved ones. But as Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, wept in her courtroom seat as the sentence was announced, there was at least a sense that one painful chapter—the one dealing with Scott's fate—was over. "The jury was thoughtful and apparently reached a decision based on the evidence," says Stan Goldman of L.A.'s Loyola Law School. "The system worked."
Emerging from their state-imposed silence on Dec. 13, the dazed, emotionally drained jurors sketched a portrait of 12 strangers burdened with deciding a man's fate—and struggling with just how to go about it. When the jury sat down on Nov. 3 to begin deliberations over Scott's guilt, there was an immediate snag. The person who originally had been chosen by the other jurors as the foreman, Gregory Jackson, who is both a doctor and lawyer, had taken meticulous notes during the trial, filling close to 20 steno pads. The trouble was that as Jackson began to lead the discussion, he had to pause to refer back to what he had written, slowing the process to a crawl. "He needed to go through all his volumes," says juror Steve Cardosi, 29, a firefighter and paramedic from Half Moon Bay. By contrast, says Cardosi with a laugh, it turned out that juror John Guinasso, 43, a Teamster who had spent much of the trial listening with his arms folded—and seemed to some observers as if he were hardly paying attention—proved to have tremendous powers of recall. "Big John, I don't think he filled one notebook," says Cardosi. "But he remembered more than almost anybody in there."
The jurors decided that Jackson should not be the foreman. "We thought we would be better served if he went through his notebooks and somebody else facilitated," says Cardosi. The next day, Jackson returned to say that he "wasn't comfortable" being on the jury anymore; Judge Al Delucchi replaced him with an alternate, Dennis Lear, and Cardosi became the foreman. The group established a set of rules for conducting the deliberations. They decided not to take an initial poll, so that nobody would have to commit until they had heard what everyone else had to say. What's more, each juror was limited to speaking for two minutes at a time (one was the designated timekeeper), and everybody had to raise their hand and be recognized. Before that, said juror Greg Beratlis, 46, an engineer for a utility company, "we had a bunch of people jump up on soapboxes." Perhaps most important, there was a list with the rules of conduct spelled out—and the word "respect" written at the top—taped to the wall.
Though they had spent roughly six months together, usually sitting four days a week in court, from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon (all for a pay of $15 a day, from which they had to pay for their own food, coffee and gas), the jurors knew virtually nothing about each other—not even first names. To preserve their anonymity, they adopted nicknames. (Nice, for instance, used her childhood nickname "Ricky.") "We were friendly to each other but never got too personal," says Beratlis. "We kept each other at bay." At times the arm's-length treatment could breed needless tension. When Cardosi spotted what he took to be Guinasso's sometimes gruff body language, he feared the worst. "I thought for sure I'd have a problem with him," says Cardosi. "But you don't know anybody until you begin talking to them. In the end I did get along; I did understand where he was coming from."
In fact, verbal altercations were kept to a minimum. When the panel finally got around to voting on the question of guilt or innocence, on Friday, Nov. 12, the verdict for conviction was unanimous on the first ballot, though they then had to hash out first-or second-degree murder. During the penalty phase, the first vote, on Friday, Dec. 10, came up with six for death, two for life without parole and four abstentions. When they resumed on Monday, the group asked to see a picture of Laci in her red maternity outfit, just days before she was killed; the autopsy photo of Conner; and a sonogram of the fetus, which Cardosi had specifically requested. "To know that Laci was at home when Scott was out with Amber at a Christmas party, wearing a Santa hat, and then to see the remains of the bodies," says Beratlis, one of the two originally leaning toward life in prison, "that was too much. That was the clincher."
But what, beyond those haunting images, had convinced the jury of Peterson's guilt and so readily moved them to decide that he be executed? The jurors rejected the notion of a particular turning point; Nice echoed her fellow panelists in talking about "so many things, so many things" that argued for Peterson's guilt. Among them were Scott's consulting tide tables in the days before Laci disappeared—presumably to calculate the best place to dump her body—to his telling Amber that he had "lost my wife" before the crime. To Cardosi it came down to the fact that convinced millions of others of Scott's guilt—that the bodies washed up where Scott had been fishing. The jury tried to stick to the facts, refusing to dwell on the issue of whether Peterson used concrete anchors to weigh down his wife's body, a scenario suggested by the prosecution but never proved. "It would be horrible to speculate," Cardosi says. "Can you imagine if at some point Scott comes forward and says, 'Yeah, I did it, but you were so wrong. I didn't do it that way at all. I used the living room rug.' "
Although Cardosi, Nice and Beratlis all praised attorney Mark Geragos's skill, they felt that his overselling of the defense's case in the opening statement—where he vowed to bring in eyewitnesses who would prove that his client was "stone cold innocent"—and then failing to deliver was a major strike against him. "He didn't produce a lot of the things he said he would," says Cardosi. But the biggest problem for the defense was Peterson himself, especially the lack of concern he showed not only when Laci went missing but throughout the trial, right up to the moment when the jury's sentence was read. "Scott's a manipulator," says juror Mike Belmessieri, 56, a project manager for Georgia-Pacific Corp. "It's that simple."
For his part, Cardosi insisted that he felt no hatred for Peterson. "It's not because I disliked him or liked him that this happened," he says. Nice sounds a different note. "Scott just knows how to turn emotion on and off when he wants to," she says. "But I never saw him cry when it came to Laci and Conner." That was far from the initial impression that Beratlis had of the defendant. "When I first saw Scott, he looked like the all-American boy," recalls Beratlis. "That was my gut reaction. I thought he was innocent from the beginning."
Serving on the jury entailed considerable hardship. Perhaps the most trying was the enforced silence, the judge's order that jurors could not discuss the case until deliberations. "You have many sleepless nights," says Beratlis, "you can't talk to anybody; you have to keep it bottled up." He also complains that with all the sitting around, he gained 10 lbs. Not that the food served during the 13 days they were sequestered encouraged anyone to overeat. "Every day they gave us fish—we were disgusted," says Nice. "I'm surprised they didn't serve us fish for breakfast." While at home they were forbidden to watch trial reports, but that was nothing compared to the tedium they endured at the hotel where they were confined at night, with a bailiff hovering over them controlling the group television remote, during the deliberations. Says Beratlis: "Who wants to watch just the Weather Channel?" But as he points out, the biggest toll was the emotional one: "This was harder than real work because you can't let it go. Every day left us drained." Worst of all, though, was the separation from their families. "I missed my son Brett's 14th birthday; I missed it when he had two front teeth knocked out in a football game."
Scott Peterson, of course, faces a considerably longer and more difficult ordeal. Assuming his sentence is formally accepted by Judge Delucchi on Feb. 25, he will be sent to the state's death row at San Quentin (see box), where—if the court history of other California death row inmates is a guide—he is more likely to die of other causes than by lethal injection as he waits for his appeals to wend their way through the system. A week before the death sentence was returned, Peterson's brother Joe vowed that the verdict would be overturned. "This story is far from over," Joe told PEOPLE. "We're waiting for new evidence in the case. Scott will get out."
At this point, however, the drip of new revelations appears, if anything, to be going against Peterson. In the aftermath of the sentence, Heather Richardson, the maid of honor at Laci and Scott's wedding, cast new light on his attitudes toward family life, which the prosecution argued was at the heart of his desire to get rid of his wife. "[He and Laci] had a plan for how they wanted their life to be—early on, they talked about not having kids and weren't sure," Richardson says. "Along the way, she changed her mind—she wanted kids—he didn't."
In one sense, however, Joe Peterson is right: The story is not over. The pain caused by the murder of Laci Peterson and Conner is nowhere close to ending, least of all for their loved ones or those who found themselves pulled into the vortex of the case. "Those were two families who were one," says Nice. "They were united and one person's actions ripped that all apart."
Bill Hewitt. Ron Arias, Johnny Dodd and Lyndon Stambler in Redwood City, Vickie Bane and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles, Macon Morehouse and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Lori Rozsa in Miami