Everyone knows that California trials are “different” from those in Texas. Appeals, at least in certain cases are quite different too. The fact that Scott Peterson’s case arrived in the Supreme Court in March of 2005, but was not decided until Aug. 24, 2020 is one thing that caught my attention.
So, I decided to trace the progress of the case, which gave me a new perspective on appellate delay. I am aware of some Texas appeals that have taken up to 7 or 8 years for resolution, but I doubt any Texas appeal has taken 15 years.
The record on appeal in Peterson’s case was not initially filed until Jan. of 2007. Counsel was not appointed for Peterson until July of 2009. After nine requests for extensions of time to file the Appellant’s Brief, it was actually filed slightly ahead of time. The last extension was until Aug. 1, 2012; it was filed on July 5. The initial deadline for it to be filed had been Jan. 31, 2011. The brief was 427 pages long. The record was more than 50,000 pages. The State’s brief was not due to be filed until May 21, 2015. It was filed early on Jan. 21, 2015. It was 475 pages long. Peterson’s Reply Brief was due on March 27, but that was extended first to May 26 and then to July 27, 2015.
The case was finally submitted upon oral argument to the court on June 2, 2020. The opinion has some interesting issues, especially a change of venue question like one that will be upcoming in a certain Minnesota case, and my favorite, a “don’t rock the boat” issue. Even so, it is hard to imagine why it took so long to be concluded. But, the court was apparently quite familiar with issues before submission, as the time period between submission and disposition was (on the surface) remarkably short.
I did not really look, but I am guessing there may have been significant changes in the makeup of the court during the years. I did learn that the court is one of the few that does not sit in the state capital (the Supreme Court of Maine is also one of those).
A reversal of the guilty verdict in Peterson’s case might have caused some real problems for the State. As it came out, I am guessing the Attorney General will determine to abandon the request for a death sentence, but I guess the case may take a trip to Washington, D.C. first (although I doubt Peterson will be entitled to appointed counsel). But, he has had plenty of time to work on his own pet. for cert.
It's because that is a feature, not a bug, of the California DP system. It is purposely designed to not work.
One has to wonder why they even bother.
Turns out that Peterson did not need appointed counsel or to file a petition for certiorari pro se. Apparently he was able to hire Attorney Cliff Gardner for that purpose. The only issue raised in the petition, however, was "whether the Eighth Amendment permits a verdict of guilt returned by a jury from which all prospective jurors opposed to the death penalty have been improperly removed." Cert was denied on Feb. 22, so the case is now definitely back before the trial court in San Mateo County.
It seems to me that a death sentence in California is largely symbolic rather than meaningful, but apparently the State has determined to continue to seek the death penalty as the latest word from Peterson's attorney is "he expects that the death-penalty phase of Peterson’s case will essentially be a 'retrial' for his client. He predicted it would last roughly four to six months, as his team plans to introduce new evidence." In a coordinate habeas writ filed back in November of 2015, Peterson is asking the trial judge to now grant him a complete new trial.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager announced in late May that the State would no longer seek the death penalty and that all that remained was for a sentencing hearing to be set. That, however, will be postponed until the court rules on the habeas issue, with sentencing tentatively set for August 25. The habeas petition can be denied without an evidentiary hearing, but that seems unlikely. In any event, that hearing is unlikely to include much, if any, of the "new evidence" concerning an alternative perpetrator. Time keeps on slipping . . .
On October 20, Judge Massullo determined not to delay Peterson's re-sentencing any further. It appears that will now go forward on December 8 (with life without parole the only possible sentence). The pending habeas proceeding (which could result in an entire new trial) will continue on a separate track.
But first the court must decide whether Peterson's present counsel can continue to represent him, as Habeas Corpus Resource Center attorneys seem to be prohibited from appearing in non-death penalty cases.
The big question now will be whether evidence about an alternative perpetrator will even be considered in connection with how the presence of a potentially disqualified juror may have affected the determination of Peterson's guilt.
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