REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- The judge in the Scott Peterson case yesterday ruled that the jury will be allowed to consider a lesser murder charge that would spare the former fertilizer salesman a possible death sentence if convicted.
Legal experts said the ruling is a victory for the prosecution because allowing the lesser charges could make it easier for jurors to convict if they are unsure whether the killing was premeditated.
Peterson already faces two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his pregnant wife and the fetus she was carrying. Prosecutors are seeking life without parole or the death penalty under those charges.
But the judge ruled that jurors will also have the choice of second-degree murder charges, which could bring two sentences of 15 years-to-life in prison.
"The jury could say, 'Well, we think that Mr. Peterson killed Laci Peterson but we're not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that there was premeditation,' " Judge Alfred A. Delucchi said in his ruling.
Defense attorneys objected to the inclusion of the lesser charges because most experts agree that the defense has done a good job at explaining away premeditation. In order for the jury to find Peterson guilty of first-degree murder, they must first believe he planned the killing.
Prosecutors have built their case on premeditation, that Peterson planned for weeks to kill his wife, who was eight months pregnant, and had devised a way to dispose of the body by purchasing a boat. Peterson is accused of killing his wife on or around Christmas Eve 2002, then dumping the weighted body into San Francisco Bay. The remains were discovered along a rocky shoreline about four months later, a few miles from where Peterson claims to have gone fishing alone the day his wife vanished.
Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Monday.