L.A. Innocence Project takes up case of Scott Peterson

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LOS ANGELES — Scott Peterson appeared virtually in court on Tuesday, nearly 20 years after he was convicted of killing his pregnant wife, as his lawyers with the Los Angeles Innocence Project asked a judge to order new DNA tests and allow their investigators to access evidence connected with a burglary across the street from the couple’s California home.

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Peterson was sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty of murder in the deaths of Laci and the unborn child they planned to name Conner. Prosecutors said he killed Laci and dumped her body in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002. The death sentence was later overturned, and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

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The LA Innocence Project has now taken up Peterson’s case. The group suggests in court documents that Laci Peterson may have witnessed a Christmas Eve break-in across the street from the couple’s home in Modesto and been kidnapped and then killed by the burglars.

The filings in San Mateo County Superior Court represent a longshot bid to exonerate the 51-year-old Peterson, two decades after his arrest captivated the nation.

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In January, the LA Innocence Project filed motions on his behalf “to order further discovery of evidence and allow new DNA testing to support our investigation into Mr. Peterson’s claim of actual innocence,” the group’s director, Paula Mitchell, said in a statement Tuesday.

The project is seeking DNA tests on materials connected to the burglary, and on tarps and a large plastic bag found at the waterfront near where the bodies washed up separately.

In addition, the group’s attorneys are asking for police reports and audio and video recordings from interviews of suspects and witnesses connected to the burglary. The court filings claim the Modesto Police Department improperly withheld materials and was too hasty in declaring that the burglars had no connection to the killings.

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Stanislaus County prosecutor David Harris told Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Hill it will take time to go through old materials, much of which he believes was already litigated at trial and again during Peterson’s appeal.

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“There’s a lot of back and forth from the record and there is going to be a large amount of reading from both sides,” Harris said.

One of the burglary suspects, named in court filings as D.M., denied that he had anything to do with the break-in but suggested to police that maybe the burglars were confronted by Laci Peterson and they “did something stupid.”

“D.M. further claimed to have knowledge that someone other than Mr. Peterson killed Laci Peterson because he stated that he knows Mr. Peterson is innocent,” the filings say.

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In court, Mitchell said her group’s requests are “not a fishing expedition. They’re very precise. They’re very specific.”

In the original trial, prosecutors presented mostly circumstantial evidence while arguing that Peterson was having an affair with a Fresno massage therapist when he killed Laci, took her body out in a fishing boat and dumped her in the bay.

Peterson appeared in court via Zoom for Tuesday’s status conference. The judge set the next two hearings for April 16 and May 29. Peterson will also attend those hearings remotely from Mule Creek State Prison, southeast of Sacramento.

“Today’s hearing was just the first step in a long process. We have not commented on our motions, and we will continue to present our case in court — where it should be adjudicated,” Mitchell said in the statement.

The national Innocence Project has distanced itself from the Los Angeles group, saying in a press release issued after the court filings that the Southern California nonprofit was “wholly independent of the Innocence Project.”

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