Scott Peterson on Thursday filed the automatic appeal of his 2004 death sentence to the California Supreme Court, maintaining as he always has that he had nothing to do with the murders of his wife Laci and unborn son Connor.
Peterson's attorney, noted death penalty lawyer Cliff Gardner, filed the 423-page document eight years after a San Mateo County jury found the former fertilizer salesman guilty of suffocating a Laci and dumping her in the San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002.
Actually, what Peterson's lawyer filed was the appellant's opening brief. The "appeal" is automatic, and nothing needs to be, or is, filed. (In all other cases, an appeal is commenced by filing a "notice of appeal.") The case is S132449. The docket and other info can be retrieved by pressing the Case Information button on the California Supreme Court's website and entering that number. The actual date of the judgment is March 16, 2005.
So why did it take so long to file the opening brief?
First, there was a four-year delay in appointing counsel. California's Judicial Council has needlessly restricted the pool of attorneys by imposing an unnecessarily restrictive definition of who is deemed "qualified." On top of that, capital defense bar culture tells defense lawyers that they must file massive documents briefing every conceivable point. (U.S. Supreme Court precedent is flatly contrary, see Jones v. Barnes, 477 U.S. 527, 536 (1986), but hey, when you're on a crusade, you can't let a minor matter like U.S. Supreme Court precedent squarely on point stand in the way.) Few people want to do that, and California lets lawyers take appointments for noncapital felony appeals (a comfortable practice for which there is a surplus of lawyers) while declining to take capital ones.
Second, California's rules and its Supreme Court allow lawyers way too much time and too many pages to file the brief. The defense side likes to point to the massive records in California capital cases. The rule provides that the brief be filed in 210 days plus 15 days for each 1000 pages of record over 10,000. The record in this case was indeed very large, but 44% of it was jury questionnaires, and the questionnaires filled out by venire members who neither served nor were challenged are irrelevant. Then despite the long time granted by the rule, counsel asked for and received nine extensions of time to file. Why does the California Supreme Court just roll over and give counsel so many extensions of time? Because it doesn't have enough alternatives to crack down, for the reasons noted in the previous point.
So that is why we have seven years from trial court judgment (and automatic appeal) to the appellant's opening brief -- problems that are completely fixable at no additional cost if California's Legislature, Judicial Council, and Supreme Court only had the backbone to do so.