What a screwed up legal system we have. Dad LUCAS PETERSON appears to have murdered his 1-year-old daughter, then buried her in a shallow grave. The girl was presumably just "missing" until authorities cut a deal with Peterson and agreed not to charge him with a felony if he could help them locate the girl. So Peterson led the police to the girl's grave in another county. And now, because of various legal errors regarding the "cooperation agreement," it appears Dad will get out of jail scott-free.
Lucas Peterson's release appears imminent
BY ART HOVEY / Lincoln Journal Star Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009 1:00 am
Prosecutors appear to have run out of options for keeping a Seward County man implicated in his daughter's 2007 death behind bars.
Lucas Peterson, 24, led law enforcement officers to daughter Trista's grave in rural Butler County in April 2007 and remained in jail in Butler County on Wednesday.
But the Nebraska Court of Appeals has rejected the latest attempt to clear a path to a felony child-abuse prosecution, and Butler County Attorney Julie Reiter said Peterson could regain his freedom as soon as next week.
"It is unfortunate," Reiter said, "but I have to work with the facts and the circumstances that I am given."
The pivotal legal point in the case is District Judge Alan Gless' decision that Seward County law-enforcement officials offered Peterson "a cooperation agreement" as they tried to resolve the whereabouts of his year-old child.
Gless concluded that Peterson cooperated only because he'd been promised -some four months after Trista's death -- that he would not be charged with a felony.
Reiter filed her own felony charges for "concealing human skeletal remains," because the body was buried in Butler County and because Butler County had not been a party to the cooperation agreement.
But in a 10-page decision, Chief Appeals Court Judge Everett Inbody said any evidence of a crime must be excluded because it was "the fruit of the poisonous tree."
Peterson's attorney, Todd Lancaster of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, said the outcome of the latest appeal leaves no grounds for keeping his client in jail.
"So, essentially, if the Butler County case is dismissed," Lancaster said, "Mr. Peterson is released and he's free to carry on with his life."
He noted Seward County still has an appeal pending. But it resulted from Gless dismissing multiple felony charges there, because of the cooperation agreement, and from prosecutors' refusal to turn to a misdemeanor approach.
Since that means there are no pending charges, Seward County can't keep Peterson in a cell there either, he said.
An investigation by Seward County Attorney Wendy Elston and the Seward County Sheriff's Office came at a time when Peterson was already in jail on charges related to removing his car from an impoundment lot.
It also occurred at a time when Trista's mother, Jennifer Williams of Milford, was serving out a sentence on theft and bad-check charges at the women's prison in York and as other family members became increasingly alarmed about not seeing Trista.
An autopsy determined she died of injuries that Elston described at the time as "severe, multiple, blunt force trauma to the head, neck and trunk."
As the Peterson prosecution bogged down last year, Elston and Seward County Sheriff Joe Yocum became targets of recall petitions. That fell by the wayside when citizen critics couldn't reach their signature goal.
Yocum said Wednesday he's still hoping to see justice. "Our position has always been that we feel that he is the person responsible for Trista's death," he said of Peterson, "and we would hope the criminal justice system would work toward that end."
Elston was unavailable for comment.
The Nebraska Attorney General's office has been a partner in the prosecution. Spokeswoman Leah Bucco-White said attorneys there are working on the remaining appeal and are scheduled to file written arguments by a Monday deadline.
Reiter said the appeals court support for suppressing any evidence gathered through the cooperative agreement, in effect, "leaves me without a body to produce as evidence in unlawful burial of human remains."
In April 2007, Reiter was among those who came to an abandoned Butler County farm as Trista Peterson's blanket-wrapped remains were unearthed. "It's not something I'll forget," she said Wednesday.
"I'm disappointed," she said of what's happened since then in the court realm. "It's unfortunate and disappointing."