Citing death penalty, judge keeps warrants in missing case sealed

April 11, 2003 

Calling it a potential death penalty case, a judge ruled Thursday that he would not release information from search warrants in the investigation into the disappearance of Laci Peterson.

"It is paramount that the investigation be thorough and unhampered, in part because of the potential penalty of death," Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger M. Beauchesne wrote.

In a separate ruling Thursday, Beauchesne ordered the unsealing in 10 days, pending appeals, of a search warrant and parts of an affidavit into the investigation of Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino.

However, the judge said he will release all of the Sabatino material in 90 days, unless the district attorney can convince the judge not to do so.

In his ruling, Beauchesne invited the state Court of Appeal to address "important legal issues" raised by the cases.

The ruling came after The Bee asked the court to make public eight search warrants in the Peterson investigation and one warrant in the Sabatino case, contending they were improperly sealed.

Beauchesne ruled last week that judges acted improperly when they secretly sealed the documents. The judges acted at the request of law enforcement officials.

The documents include search warrants, affidavits explaining why investigators wanted the warrants, and lists of items found.

In the earlier ruling, Beauchesne agreed with Bee attorney Charity Kenyon that judges were required to conduct hearings to determine what parts of the documents, if any, should be sealed.

Beauchesne conducted a closed hearing this week and determined that all documents related to the warrants in the Peterson investigation would remain sealed.

"Investigation techniques, clues and focus on future avenues of inquiry by law enforcement personnel would unduly alert any potential suspect," Beauchesne wrote, noting that "unsealing any of the documents in issue would likely impair any suspect's rights to a fair trial."

He also indicated that any potential defendant could face the death penalty because Peterson was about eight months pregnant when she was reported missing Dec. 24. On March 5, police classified the case as a homicide investigation.

California law allows for the death penalty for anyone convicted during the same trial of multiple murders.

State law defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought. The unborn child must have passed the embryonic stage, roughly between 6 and 8 weeks.

In his ruling, Beauchesne invited the appellate court to decide five legal issues in the case, including a conflict between state and federal law on when a warrant becomes a public record.

He also questioned whether a state law applies if there is an ongoing investigation.

That law says an executed warrant must be returned to the court 10 days after issuance. At that point, the warrant becomes public record.

"I'm disappointed in the decision, but not surprised," Bee Managing Editor Joe Demma said. "The judge said in open court he disagrees with the law that says the warrants should be made public."

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

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