Scott Peterson has maintained his innocence since he was convicted of murdering his wife and unborn child in 2004
The story shocked the world: In 2002, Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant, was found brutally murdered — and her husband Scott Peterson was the primary suspect. In 2004, Scott was convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son and sentenced to death.
“That’s the last person you want to think had anything to do with the disappearance of your daughter — her husband,” Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha, said in the 2017 ABC special Truth and Lies: The Murder of Laci Peterson. “The person that was a member of your family, somebody that you loved and cared about, and thought he felt the same way about your daughter. And knowing how she felt about him.”
In 2022, Scott was denied a new trial. "Everyone was so worried that they were going to have to go through the pain of a trial again, and no one wanted to deal with that," a friend of Laci’s family told PEOPLE.
Most recently, Scott's case was picked up by the Los Angeles Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization known for their work to exonerate wrongly convicted and incarcerated individuals. In January 2024, the organization told PEOPLE in a statement that they now represent Scott and are "investigating his claim of actual innocence."
Here’s everything to know about Scott Peterson’s crimes, his life in prison and his attempts to prove his innocence from behind bars.
He was arrested shortly after his wife’s and unborn child’s bodies were found in 2003
Laci Peterson disappeared on Dec. 24, 2002, while on a walk with the family dog near her home in Modesto, California, about 90 miles east of San Francisco. At the time, she was 27 years old and eight months pregnant with a baby boy the couple had decided to name Conner. Four months later, Laci’s and Conner’s bodies were discovered washed ashore in the San Francisco Bay. Laci had been decapitated and parts of her limbs were missing; Conner’s fetal remains were discovered outside of his mother’s body. Because their bodies were so badly decomposed, no specific cause of death could be determined.
Suspicion fell on Scott, who claimed to be a grieving husband and father — though he had been actively having an affair with Amber Frey, whose testimony later helped to convict him. He said he went fishing alone in the San Francisco Bay on the morning of Christmas Eve.
Detective Al Brocchini told PEOPLE in 2005 that Scott’s behavior in the days after Laci’s disappearance was a red flag. “His major concerns were not Laci,” Brocchini said. “His major concerns were his car door hitting his other car door in the driveway, or me taking a picture of this boat in his shop, or getting a receipt for the pink slipper and sunglasses the tracking-dog people used for Laci’s scent. He was concerned about the wrong things on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
In the 2017 A&E docuseries The Murder of Laci Peterson, detective Jon Buehler recalled that Scott had a strange reaction when he was told that Laci’s and Conner’s bodies had been recovered.
“We told Scott. [There was] very little reaction on Scott’s part,” Buehler said. “In my view, because he was the one who killed Laci, there’s no reason for him to have a lot of emotion because he knew what the results were gonna be.”
Scott, however, recalled the moment differently in the A&E docuseries, claiming he had a "really emotional, physical reaction" to the news.
He was arrested on April 18, 2003, just days after the bodies were found. Police found suspicious items in Scott’s car: He had a gun, about $15,000 cash, three cell phones, camping gear, various medications and two driver’s licenses. He had also dyed his hair blonde and was in his hometown of San Diego, more than 400 miles from Modesto. Police suspected that Scott intended to flee across the border to Mexico.
Scott was convicted of murder in 2004 after a five-month trial
Scott’s trial began on June 1, 2004, in Redwood City, California — about 90 miles from Modesto. The prosecution claimed that Scott’s motive in murdering his family was to collect a $250,000 life insurance policy on Laci.
Scott claimed that he was fishing alone when Laci was abducted. On Dec. 30, 2002, six days after Laci disappeared, Amber Frey — who had believed Scott was unmarried — contacted Modesto Police to inform them of her relationship with Scott. At the police’s request, she taped her phone calls with Scott. The recordings, which jurors later said portrayed Scott as dishonest and manipulative, were a major factor in swaying the jury to a guilty verdict.
“I usually try and never let my emotions about a victim surface during a trial,” prosecutor Birgit Fladager told PEOPLE in 2005. “That was impossible here. The raw emotion and incredible sadness that filled that courtroom on many occasions seeped into your bones. It was very painful for everyone.”
The trial lasted five months, and the jury started their deliberations on Nov. 3, 2004. Scott was convicted of first-degree murder for Laci’s death and of second-degree murder for Conner’s. When the judge handed down his guilty verdict on Nov. 12, 2004, Scott was “staggered by it,” he said in The Murder of Laci Peterson. “I had no idea it was coming.”
On Dec. 13, 2004, the jury recommended that he be sentenced to death. The following March, Judge Alfred Delucchi upheld the jury’s suggestion and formally sentenced Scott to the death penalty.
In the docuseries Murder Made Me Famous, juror John Guinasso recalled that Scott’s recorded conversations with Frey convinced him of the man’s guilt. “The Amber Frey tapes exposed him not telling the truth on several occasions,” he said. “He’s romancing another woman and then hiding out in parking lots, not even looking for his wife."
He’s been in prison for nearly two decades
According to San Quentin State Prison spokesperson Vernell Crittendon, Scott quickly adjusted to life in prison, charming the female guards and spreading the word of his new nickname, “Scottie-Too-Hottie,” which was given to him by a woman who wrote him a letter of support. Crittendon told PEOPLE that, when Scott first arrived, he received as many as 85 letters a week and frequent visits from his parents, friends and a female member of his former defense team.
“He’s a sociopath,” Crittendon added. “As long as he’s getting all this attention, he’s going to be rather happy.”
“Scott’s keeping his spirits pretty high,” a Peterson family friend told PEOPLE in 2005. “He has the attitude that he didn’t do anything wrong, and he’s waiting for the day when he can come out and do his ha-ha dance and tell the world, ‘See, I didn’t do it.’ ”
While working on her 2012 book Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption, investigative journalist Nancy Mullane observed Scott in prison. “He didn’t look depressed,” she told PEOPLE. “He looked like someone you’d see on the street playing basketball. He had his shirt off and his boxer shorts up. ... He wasn’t ripped, but he looked healthy.”
In 2020, the Associated Press reported that Scott’s name was on a list of at least 31,000 inmates to whom California paid unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic; Scott’s attorney maintained that his client did not request or receive money from the state. In October 2022, a woman named Brandy Iglesias was arrested and charged with using Scott’s and other prisoners’ names and social security numbers to collect more than $145,000, according to AP. (Five months earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported that 13 people were charged in connection with the same scheme.)
He has continued to fight his conviction
Scott has maintained his innocence and continues to fight his murder conviction.
His attorneys have claimed that he did not have a fair trial and have long attempted to secure a retrial for their client. They claimed that juror Richelle Nice lied on her juror questionnaire and committed “prejudicial misconduct” by not disclosing that she had filed for a restraining order against her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend four years before the Peterson trial. Nice also wrote seven letters to Scott and co-authored a book with the other jurors.
Scott’s lawyers have also brought up new evidence that contradicts the prosecution’s timeline of the morning Laci disappeared — including that of the Petersons’ mail carrier, whose testimony suggests that Laci was alive for longer than previously thought. His attorneys also claim that neighbors saw Laci alive after Scott left the house that day.
"There's evidence that was completely ignored that shows Laci was alive after [Scott] left for the day," Scott’s sister-in-law Janey Peterson told the Today show in 2021. "But also, there was no evidence that he had anything to do with what happened to Laci."
Scott’s death penalty sentence was overturned in 2020
In 2020, the California Supreme Court overturned his death penalty sentence and ordered a new sentencing trial for him. The court did not overturn his conviction.
"Peterson contends his trial was flawed for multiple reasons, beginning with the unusual amount of pretrial publicity that surrounded the case," the court said in its ruling. "We reject Peterson’s claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder.” The ruling also noted that the original judge "made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase."
Later that year, the California Supreme Court ruled that Scott’s case should have an additional review to determine whether he was entitled to a second trial, wherein he could possibly be exonerated and freed from prison.
In 2021, Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, who was on the prosecuting team during the original trial, announced she wouldn’t retry the penalty phase trial, upholding the court’s decision to overturn his death sentence. Scott will instead serve a life sentence without parole.
In that sentencing hearing, Laci’s family spoke out against the convicted murderer. "Nineteen years, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about my sister," said Laci’s sister Amy Rocha.
"There are no words able to express the pain associated with not being able to experience life together,” her brother Brent Rocha added.
"You betrayed her, your son and everyone else," Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha, said. "You ended two beautiful souls."
After that hearing, a Peterson family member told PEOPLE that having his sentence scaled back was a victory for Scott. "He feels so gratified about that," the family member said. "He feels like it's a big step towards his freedom. He's feeling positive."
His request for a new trial was denied in 2022
In December 2022, Judge Anne-Christine Massullo denied Scott’s request for a new trial. In her decision, Massullo wrote that Richelle Nice’s misconduct was accidental. "The court concludes that Juror No. 7's (Nice) responses were not motivated by pre-existing or improper bias against Petitioner (Peterson)," she wrote, "but instead were a combination of good faith misunderstanding of the questions and sloppiness in answering."
According to a friend, Laci’s family was pleased with the decision. "It's a tremendous relief to everyone who loved Laci," the source told PEOPLE. "Everyone was so worried that they were going to have to go through the pain of a trial again, and no one wanted to deal with that."
The Los Angeles Innocence Project began investigating Scott's case in January 2024
On Jan. 19, 2024, the L.A. Innocence Project announced they were investigating Scott's case and said new "evidence" supports the claim that he did not kill Lacy and their unborn son.
"New evidence now supports Mr. Peterson's longstanding claim of innocence and raises many questions into who abducted and killed Laci and Conner Peterson," read filings first obtained by ABC News.
That evidence includes updated witness statements that point to multiple areas of interest, particularly a December 2002 burglary of a home across the street from the Petersons' Modesto residence. (Scott's attorneys have argued that Laci was killed after witnessing men breaking into her neighbor's home.) The organization also hopes to conduct new DNA testing on a blood-stained mattress found on Dec. 25, 2002, nearby, which could link Laci back to the burglars.
Scott's defense attorney Pat Harris told PEOPLE of the news, “We are very excited to have the incredible attorneys at the L.A. Innocence Project lend their considerable expertise to helping prove Scott Peter’s Innocence."
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