When the jury foreman at Scott Peterson’s murder trial recently read the jury’s verdict finding Peterson guilty of murdering his pregnant wife, Lacey, and their unborn son, Connor, the most difficult work for Peterson’s defense team was, in some ways, just beginning. Once a guilty verdict is rendered in a criminal case, a separate sentencing hearing is held to determine the newly-convicted criminal’s punishment.
Under California law, Peterson’s verdict of guilty as to two first-degree murder charges left the jury and the court with two options as far as Peterson’s punishment was concerned: Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. In order to make a decision as to what Peterson’s punishment should be, a sentencing hearing was held shortly after the guilty verdict was rendered.
The sentencing proceeding is a sort of “mini trial” on the sole issue of what sentence should be imposed. When an individual is found guilty of a crime, state and federal laws generally provide for both a minimum and a maximum sentence for that particular crime. A convicted criminal may receive the minimum sentence, the maximum sentence, or any sentence along the spectrum in between. Courts and juries are required to follow certain sentencing guidelines in order to determine which sentence along that spectrum is most appropriate based on the particular facts of the case, as well as in consideration of the particular individual being sentenced.
During the criminal trial, the facts of the particular case were on trial in order to reach a decision as to the accused criminal’s guilt or innocence. In some sense, at the sentencing hearing, it is the convicted criminal’s life that is on trial. To reach a decision on sentencing, a number of factors will be considered. The court and the jury will consider “aggravating” circumstances. Aggravating circumstances are those factors which tend to support a harsher sentence for the convicted criminal. They will also consider “mitigating” circumstances, which are those factors which may tend to support a lighter or more lenient sentence for the defendant.
In most cases, the probation department for the particular county will conduct an investigation into the convicted criminal’s life, including his or her background and prior criminal record. The probation department’s task is to provide the court with a snapshot of the convicted criminal’s life, so that the court can get an idea of what kind of life the defendant has led up to this point and what kind of person he or she is. In connection with making its report, the department may consider letters provided by victims, family members of victims and even the general public. The department may also consider letters from friends and family members speaking out on behalf of the convicted criminal. The department will also consider information from other outside sources, such as psychological evaluations. The department will then make a recommendation regarding sentencing, and the court will consider that recommendation in making its decision.
At the sentencing hearing, both the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney will be allowed an opportunity to argue and to put on evidence to support their opinion as to the appropriate sentence to fit both the crime and the individual criminal. Victims or their family members are often permitted to address the court. Likewise, character witnesses for the defendant, or even the defendant him/herself, may address the court to express remorse and/or to request leniency.
In Scott Peterson’s case, jury members were asked to consider a number of mitigating factors, including the lack of a prior criminal record, Peterson’s previous status as a law-abiding and upstanding citizen, his good employment record and his close family ties. They also considered a number of aggravating factors, including evidence that the murders were planned well in advance, Peterson’s affair with another woman, the heinous nature of the crime itself and Peterson’s apparent lack of remorse.
In Peterson’s case, the jury found that the aggravating circumstances under which Peterson committed the crimes far outweighed the mitigating factors supplied by his previously crime-free existence. Based on their findings, the jury recommended the ultimate sentence for Scott Peterson-the death penalty. After an independent review of all of the evidence and testimony submitted, the jury’s recommendation was upheld by the court. The result was the imposition of the death penalty in that particular case.