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The Life and Career of Rick Distaso

published November 12, 2008

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 130 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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The Trial

At first, Distaso didn't receive kudos when it came to prosecuting Scott Peterson. In fact, Peterson's attorney, Mark Geragos, was known for his hard-hitting style and was generally seen as the one to beat.

By contrast, Distaso had no such reputation, and was in fact considered obscure; he had simply worked quietly in Modesto and had not drawn much fanfare to himself. During the trial, too, he didn't have a particularly high profile. Typically, he managed to slip by reporters and television cameras after pretrial hearings and jury selection, which were held in Redwood City. If some had been expecting the showmanship of the O.J. Simpson trial, for example, they just weren't getting it.

Why was this? Perhaps it was because Peterson's defense team was headed by Mark Geragos, who was used to performing in front of the cameras. Nonetheless, many now think that he was given the advantage because he wasn't taken that seriously and didn't have a lot of "flash." Some observers said watching the prosecutorial team was "like watching paint dry." In other words, it was particularly boring.

Nonetheless, this seemed to work to Distaso's advantage. He and the other senior prosecutor had 28 years of combined experience putting people behind bars, including some death penalty cases. This experience put Distaso and his team at an advantage compared to Geragos; Geragos had never served as defense on a potential death penalty case before.

Obviously, Distaso's quiet reserve and "straight shooting," as supporters say, worked. Many of his supporters thought that the jurors didn't want a lot of "showmanship," as happened with the O.J. Simpson case and other high profile cases. The most important thing, said observers, was that jurors should be able to identify with the prosecutors. This was certainly true in the Peterson case, where the jurors, too, saw the victims very sympathetically; in addition, Laci's family members were very prominent in the courtroom.

What seemed to many observers as the turn in the trial was that Distaso focused on Peterson's propensity to want to be a "rich, successful, freewheeling bachelor," as Distaso stated in his closing arguments. His argument was that Peterson had either smothered or strangled Laci on either Christmas Eve or the day before in 2002 so that he could have a free life instead of being saddled with fatherhood. Distaso stated that Peterson "didn't want adult married life" and that he "didn't want Conner Peterson," the son Laci was carrying. Witness Amber Frey was key in this argument, as she was the unwitting focus of Peterson's last affair before and after his wife's murder.

Distaso further stressed that Peterson's double life as "the perfect husband" in public and the freewheeling, affairs-chasing bachelor in private was the reason for the murder. Distaso stated that Peterson had grudgingly tolerated his marriage until then, but that the impending birth of his son, along with the accompanying expenses of either raising Conner with Laci or paying child support jeopardized the bachelor lifestyle he wanted to further pursue. Rising debts were another reason articulated by Distaso as to why Peterson wanted his wife and child dead. However, Distaso stated that the money troubles were not central and Frey was a symbol rather than the ultimate motive for Peterson's actions.

Part of Distaso's strategy in his ultimate trial success was that he only hinted at reasons why Peterson might want Laci and Conner dead; instead, he saved the disclosure of the exact reasons for his closing argument — perhaps when they would have the most impact.

Distaso's efforts were successful, and Peterson was ultimately convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Whatever fears he or others had that Peterson might get off, they were unfounded. Not only was Geragos unsuccessful in his efforts to exonerate Peterson, but he was also unable to save Peterson from the death penalty.

Background and Current Pursuits

Distaso graduated from the University of Southern California and then attended Loyola Law School. He was admitted to the California State Bar in 1992. He was an attorney for the US Army Judge Advocate General Corps until 1996. At that time, he attained the rank of captain. He has also prosecuted another big case, People v. Douglas Mouser. He attained a second-degree murder conviction against Mouser, a computer expert with top-level clearance at Lawrence Livermore National laboratory. Mouser was convicted of strangling his 14-year-old stepdaughter several years ago and then disposing of her body. As with the Peterson case, this case was based on circumstantial evidence; Mouser received a second-degree murder conviction.

In 2005, Distaso became Stanislaus County Superior Court judge, and was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

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