Peterson pleads not guilty to killing wife, unborn baby

By Brian Anderson Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) MODESTO, Calif. _ The next stage of the Laci Peterson case surged forward on Monday as the once-missing Modesto woman’s husband pleaded not guilty to killing his wife and their unborn son and dumping them in the icy waters of the San Francisco Bay. Beginning what likely will be a lengthy legal battle, Scott Peterson, 30, said that he understood the charges that could send him to California’s death chamber. “I am not guilty,” Peterson told Judge Nancy Ashley in a Stanislaus County courtroom jammed with spectators, including his parents and those of his wife. “I deny it.” Shackled to the waste and under tremendous security, Peterson also denied a prosecutor’s special allegation that he knew his wife was pregnant when he killed her and that he did it “intentionally, deliberately and with premeditation.” Laci Peterson, 27, was eight months pregnant with a son the couple had planned to name Conner when she vanished. She last spoke to her mother on the telephone the night of Dec. 23. District Attorney James Brazelton charged in a two-page complaint filed Monday morning that Peterson killed his wife between Dec. 23 and Christmas Eve. Peterson has told police investigators that he last saw his wife the morning of Dec. 24 when he left their Modesto home for a day of fishing near Brooks Island and the Berkeley Marina. Her body and the body of their unborn son surfaced last week along the Richmond shoreline and were identified through genetic tests released Friday. The Contra Costa County coroner released the remains on Monday, but family members had yet to pick them up, a spokesman said. Prosecutors have not yet said whether to seek the death penalty against Peterson. A decision could be reached by a May 19 pretrial hearing, Brazelton said. Jackie Peterson, who saw her son in court for the first time since his Friday arrest in La Jolla, quietly watched the brief hearing with her husband, Lee Peterson. She hugged Laci Peterson’s mother Sharon Rocha before her son was led into a basement courtroom filled with reporters, detectives and relatives on both sides of the case. Jackie Peterson did not talk to reporters as she left the courthouse from the same rear gate as Laci Peterson’s family. Modesto attorney Kirk McAllister, who has represented Scott Peterson since the early days of the search for Laci Peterson, said investigators were interested in “self-serving justice” and that their shoddy work would come to light. “As the case progresses, you can use your own judgment about the police investigation,” McAllister said. “They were going to arrest him from the outset. Hopefully there will be a process to get to the whole truth.” Ashley appointed public defender Tim Bazar to represent Peterson, who said he did not have the money to hire a private attorney. Bazar declined to discuss the case, saying it would be turned over to a group of attorneys in his office. In an emotional news conference hours after the arraignment, Sharon Rocha told reporters that she lost her best friend when Laci disappeared and was later found dead. “We will miss them and mourn them for the rest of our lives,” she said. Peterson, who is being held without bail in the maximum security unit of the Stanislaus County jail, is next scheduled to appear in court May 6 for a hearing to determine whether he should be granted bail. ___ (Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Claire Booth and Matt Krupnick contributed to this report.) ___ ‘copy 2003, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.