Family to join in trial debate

April 25, 2003 

Prosecutors plan to meet today with Laci Peterson's family to discuss whether to seek the death penalty against her husband and accused killer, Scott.

Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton said earlier this week that if the decision solely were up to him, he would pursue the death penalty. However, that determination will be made by a committee from the district attorney's office after it consults with Laci Peterson's family and a team of veteran prosecutors from his office.

Input from those parties and defense counsel is standard procedure in Stanislaus County for determining whether to seek the death penalty, Brazelton said.

The meeting with the family was originally scheduled for Thursday, but was postponed because Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, did not feel up to it, the district attorney said.

"That's certainly understandable," he said. "She's having a real tough time. My heart goes out to her. The last thing she wanted to do yesterday was sit down and talk to us."

Scott Peterson, 30, pleaded not guilty Monday in Superior Court to two counts of murder in the slayings of his 27-year-old wife and unborn son, Conner. State law allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty against a defendant charged with more than one murder.

Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when she was reported missing from her Modesto home on Christmas Eve. Her badly decomposed body and that of her son were found last week along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

Remains still held

The remains of mother and child were still being held Thursday at the Contra Costa County coroner's office in Martinez, a spokesman said. Officials had not yet determined a cause of death for either victim, said Jimmy Lee, a spokesman for the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department.

"Given the situation, the coroner's office might decide to run additional tests to find out more," Lee said. "It all depends on the results we get back from the expert."

Officials were awaiting an analysis by a forensic anthropologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz who examined the bodies. Authorities hope the evaluation will show how long the bodies had been in the water and what type of damage may have been inflicted on them while submerged.

"I really don't want to put a time frame on when we're going to come back with the results," Lee said. "Once we're done, we're going to turn over the remains."

The coroner also was waiting to hear whether the Modesto Police Department wanted to conduct additional tests, Lee said. He declined to comment on what type of tests could be requested.

A return to the bay?

Modesto police investigators were considering searching the bay for additional evidence in the case, Sgt. Ron Cloward said.

"It is something that we're talking about doing," Cloward said, "but no decisions have been made."

Search teams using divers and sonar combed the bay on multiple occasions, but did not turn up the bodies.

Scott Peterson has told police that he went fishing in the bay on Dec. 24, and last saw his wife at 9:30 that morning. Her family reported her missing that night.

According to police, Peterson told investigators that he fished off Brooks Island after launching his boat from the Berkeley Marina. The bodies washed ashore in the vicinity of Brooks Island; people walking along the shore found the bodies in south Richmond and at Point Isabel, a little more than a mile apart.

Prosecutors have disclosed little about the evidence in the case, besides saying it is "voluminous."

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said Thursday afternoon that evidence had not yet been turned over to the public defender's office.

Peterson's attorneys, Deputy Public Defenders Kent Faulkner and Maureen Keller, were not available for comment Thursday.

Estimating the cost

Any defense in a double-murder capital case promises to be costly, defense attorneys said.

Stanislaus County would face increased costs if the defense petitions the court, and is granted, a change of trial venue based on the amount of pretrial publicity.

The state requires the county sending the trial to another jurisdiction to cover reasonable costs for the trial.

It cost San Francisco Superior Court an additional $354,800 to move a murder trial in the dog-mauling death of Diane Whipple to Los Angeles last year. That figure covered the cost of jury service, security, and moving staff and documents to Los Angeles for the two-month trial.

Prosecutors spent $220,000 above their normal trial costs because of the move to Los Angeles, said Teresa Serata, chief financial officer for the San Francisco district attorney's office.

"It wasn't cheap," said Neal Taniguchi, chief fiscal officer for the court. The county spent $245,000 for court-appointed counsel for one defendant, he said, adding that the figure would have been higher if a San Francisco judge had not been brought down for the case.

$513 a day for a judge

If a selected court does not have a judge available to hear a lengthy trial, a retired judge would be brought in at a cost of $513 a day plus travel expenses, said Lynn Holton, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Council, which administers state courts.

"With approximately 20 working days in a month, you're looking at over $10,000 in the assigned judge's salary," Holton said.

Counties can apply for extra funding from the state if trial costs pose severe budget problems.

Mariposa County received such help for the trial of Cary Stayner, who was convicted of four slayings in and around Yosemite National Park. His trial in the three sightseer murders was moved to Santa Clara County.

But the state did not reimburse San Francisco for any of its costs in the dog-mauling case, Tani- guchi said.

In an example of how much can be spent on double-murder trials that receive massive national publicity, Los Angeles County spent more than $9 million on the O.J. Simpson trial, according to a report released by the county auditor-controller's office.

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

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.


* THE PETERSON FILE

Thursday's developments

DA TO MEET FAMILY -- Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton said he hopes to meet with Laci Peterson's family today to discuss their feelings on seeking the death penalty against her husband, Scott Peterson.

REMAINS NOT HOME -- Coroner's officials in Contra Costa County say they cannot release the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson until further tests are completed. "I really don't want to put a time frame on when we're going to come back with the results," said Jimmy Lee, a spokesman for the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department.

Upcoming

SATURDAY -- Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mother, will speak at the Vigil of Hope. The vigil begins with a 12:30 p.m. march from the Garden of Healing for Victims of Crime at 12th and J streets to Graceada Park.

MAY 6, BAIL HEARING -- A judge must weigh many factors in determining whether Peterson should be released on bail. Granting bail is uncommon in capital murder cases.

MAY 19, PRELIMINARY HEARING CONFERENCE -- Meeting is conducted before the hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to hold Scott Peterson for trial.

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