Peterson alone in cell

April 20, 2003 

As a memorial of stuffed animals, flowers and candles swelled in front of his Modesto home Saturday, Scott Peterson sat across town in a 6-by-9-foot cell.

Peterson spent his first night behind bars, sleeping on a 2-inch-thick mattress in a single-person cell, officials said.

"We absolutely do not want to treat this gentleman any differently than we do anyone else," said Stanislaus County sheriff's Lt. Janet Rasmussen, who oversees the downtown Modesto jail. "He's being treated exactly as we would anybody else."

But the nature of the allegations against Peterson and the national attention given the case prompted officials to segregate him from the rest of the jail population.

"There are inmates in the jail who definitely have some unfavorable opinions of him, and they have expressed that," said Kelly Huston, a Sheriff's Department spokesman. "He is in the highest security area so he does not have access to other inmates, nor do they have access to him."

Prosecutors plan to charge Peterson, 30, with two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner, District Attorney James Brazelton said Friday.

Peterson likely will be arraigned Monday or Tuesday. He could face the death penalty if convicted of both counts.

Laci Peterson, 27, was eight months pregnant when she was reported missing Christmas Eve.

DNA tests confirmed Friday that two bodies found last week along the San Francisco Bay's eastern shoreline were those of Laci and her child, Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced.

Peterson was arrested in La Jolla on Friday morning. At the time, he was carrying a large amount of money; law enforcement officers on Saturday would not say how much.

Detectives returned him to Modesto by car, and he was booked into Stanislaus County Jail at 12:09 a.m. Saturday.

The white polo shirt and khaki shorts he wore Friday were replaced by a red jumpsuit designated for maximum-security prisoners, officials said.

His cell is within eyeshot of a deputy "pretty much all of the time," but he was not placed on a suicide watch, Huston said. A television set is within view.

Peterson made several phone calls Saturday and requested a haircut, Huston said. He was booked into jail sporting a full goatee and his dark hair had been dyed a lighter shade. Haircuts are given once a month on a rotating basis by cell block, Huston said.

For breakfast, Peterson and the other inmates had a cheese omelette with milk and bread. Lunch was beef and vegetable soup, bread and a cherry dessert. The dinner menu listed chicken soup, rice, green beans and milk.

Peterson turned down dozens of media interview requests and had not received visitors by Saturday evening, jail officials said.

Kirk McAllister, an attorney who has represented Peterson, could not be reached for comment. It was unclear if McAllister had been retained to represent Peterson in court or if his case would be turned over to another attorney or the public defender's office.

Whoever represents Peterson will face a complex case because of the media attention, nature of the allegations and potential for the death penalty, other defense attorneys said.

One issue is whether the district attorney seeks to indict Peterson by using a closed grand jury proceeding or to lay out the case against him during a preliminary hearing.

Defense attorneys are not present during grand jury proceedings to cross-examine witnesses.

But there are pitfalls with that route. In a 2-1 ruling in July, judges from the Court of Appeal in Fresno rebuked the Stanislaus County district attorney's office for its policy of removing court reporters during some portions of grand jury proceedings.

State law requires a court reporter to transcribe all proceedings in death penalty cases. Two indictments were thrown out and the charges had to be brought again.

Brazelton said Friday he has not decided whether he will seek the death penalty in the Peterson case.

The circumstances surrounding the victim's death may come into play, said Greg Spiering, an attorney with the public defender's office.

Some defendants have tried to secure a voluntary manslaughter conviction by arguing that the killing came during a sudden quarrel.

But in a heat of passion defense, the provocation has to come from the person who is killed, Spiering said.

"How can a fetus provoke anything?" Spiering said.

Finding a fair jury is also an issue.

"I would bet this thing would end up in San Jose or Los Angeles or Orange County," Spiering said, but noted that potential jurors' knowledge about the case can fade with time and other news developments.

Brazelton said Friday he would oppose a motion to move the trial to another county, noting that the case is well-known nationwide.

Residents from across the Central Valley came to the Petersons' La Loma neighborhood home Saturday to add items to a memorial that flowed across the front lawn.

Leonard Lomas, 42, brought his two stepdaughters, Amy, 12, and Leesa, 9, from Fresno.

"I thought it was something in life they should see," Lomas said. "It's just sad."

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

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