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Could alleged juror misconduct win Scott Peterson a new trial?

Peterson, a convicted murderer, has been serving a life sentence in San Quentin State prison after the 2002 murder of his pregnant wife and unborn child.

WASHINGTON — A California judge said Wednesday that she anticipates a two-week hearing early next year before she decides if Scott Peterson deserves a new trial in the 2002 death of his pregnant wife.

That's more than a year after the California Supreme Court ordered Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo to consider if juror misconduct was so significant that it denied him a fair trial.

Massullo is expected to hear testimony from juror Richelle Nice, who is at the center of the dispute and has denied that she was influenced by her own background of domestic abuse. Nice is identified in court papers as Juror 7. But she co-authored a book about the case with six other jurors.

That hearing would get to “the meat and potatoes of what the juror’s information is,” Deputy Stanislaus County District Attorney Dave Harris said.

Laci Peterson, 27, was eight months pregnant with their unborn son, Connor, when she was killed.

Massullo must decide if Nice committed “prejudicial misconduct” by failing to disclose that she had sought a restraining order in 2000 for fear that her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend could harm Nice's own unborn child.

Peterson’s attorneys revealed in a June court filing that Nice also failed to disclose that her boyfriend beat her in 2001 while she was pregnant with another child.

As a perspective juror, Nice had answered “no” when she was asked if she had ever been involved in a lawsuit or been a crime victim.

Nice said in a court filing that she didn’t think the restraining order was a lawsuit, nor did she “feel ‘victimized’ the way the law might define that term.”

Massullo said she had wanted to schedule the evidentiary hearing for October, and she might still try to do it in early November. But she said delays in gathering evidence and sworn witness testimony, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, make it more likely she will schedule the hearing for two weeks in late January or early February, after the winter holidays.

She expects to set the dates during a Sept. 22 hearing after considering several legal filings in the meantime.

Peterson, 48, participated in Wednesday's hearing through a telephone link from San Quentin State Prison, home of California's death row. The state Supreme Court separately overturned Peterson’s death sentence last year over unrelated faulty juror selection, and prosecutors said they won’t again seek to have him executed.

If Peterson gets a new trial, his attorney has said he will present new evidence bolstering the defense theory that Laci Peterson was killed when she stumbled upon a nearby burglary.

Investigators said that on Christmas Eve 2002, Peterson dumped the bodies from his fishing boat into San Francisco Bay, where they surfaced months later.

The state’s high court last year said that there was considerable circumstantial evidence incriminating Peterson in the slayings.

Prior to Wednesday's hearing, Janey Peterson -- who is married to Scott's brother, Joe -- told NBC's TODAY show that she believes Scott is innocent. She has regularly communicated with him over the 16 years he has remained behind bars, she said. 

Peterson's death sentence was reduced to life without parole in the fall of last year because of major errors in jury selection, NBC reported. And the Los Angeles Times reported last year, after the decision was handed down, that California justices made the ruling after it was discovered potential jurors were not included because they said they disagreed with the death penalty. 

"There's evidence that was completely ignored that shows Laci was alive after he left for the day," Peterson's sister-in-law said. 

The case was complex with twists and turns at every juncture of the trial. Janey Peterson, who is now 53 and back in school getting her law degree, could play a larger role in his potential future defense in court. 

As NBC's reporting noted during the interview with Janey Peterson, much of the District Attorney's case was based on an affair Scott Peterson was involved in with Amber Frey, who said she wasn't aware Scott Peterson was married. One aspect Janey Peterson didn't seem to be able to explain in the TODAY interview was why Scott Peterson was said to have told Frey that Laci had died. 

Credit: AP
FILE - March 17, 2005 -Scott Peterson is escorted by two San Mateo County Sheriff deputies as he is walked from the jail to a waiting van in Redwood City, Calif. (AP Photo/Justin Sullivan, Pool,File)

In one portion of the interview, Janey Peterson takes reporter Natalie Morales into a room she calls the "War Room," where she had filled a wall with pinned notes and images reminiscent of a TV detective's office that she says has evidence proving her brother-in-law's innocence. 

Evidence that could be admissible in a potential new trial could be a further examination of Peterson's statement to Frey, but also one other key piece of evidence focuses on the couple's Golden Retriever. Evidence never admitted in the past trial centered around a mailman and a neighbor who had conflicting reports on the whereabouts of the couple's dog. As NBC reported, the neighbor said they witnessed the dog in their gated yard, but the mailman said just some minutes later, they didn't see the dog. 

Peterson's sister-in-law points to this as proof that Laci was alive and possibly out walking the dog after Scott left their home. 

Janey also said that evidence proved that the couple's neighbors across the street were being robbed, and that Laci had a confrontation with the burglars. It's a theory previously rejected by the court that could resurface in a potential new trial if granted Wednesday. An investigation cleared the men involved in the robbery of Laci's murder, but Peterson's defense team appears ready to pursue the angle that they killed her. 

Janey Peterson still insists, "this crime is not solved."